It’s 2016 and everyone wants you to be their friend. Or at least like them. Or connect with them. Or download their freaking app. And then rate it every time you use it. Honestly, who’s got the time?
First off, I debated whether to use freaking or its coarser synonym. I asked myself, what would Sister Kevin do? I don’t pretend to have a direct line to Jesus, so I never ask what he would do. But I did go to a parochial grade school and for reasons that still escape me, the nuns there all had men’s names. Well, I sort of know, the church being a patriarchy and all. I don’t channel Sister Kevin either, but I’m guessing she’d go for “freaking” and would probably have qualms about even that.
Anyway, Wikipedia tells me that there are oodles of social networking sites. Its list of major active social sites has 211 of them! Of course it includes the ones we all know — Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, etc. But you also find Vampirefreaks.com (guess what that’s for), VK (Facebook for Russia so Putin can purge all the imperialist dogma from the site that isn’t Russian imperialist dogma), and Makeoutclub (online smooching? Who knows—I didn’t sign up so couldn’t say). Of course the Wiki list is a bit off, as it lists Facebook as #2 but doesn’t list #1. Maybe Snowden knows why.
At the end of the day, most of these sites work because they offer anyone with internet access a way to do something — whether it’s posting cat videos, finding a spouse or a job, or recruiting disaffected youth to join ISIS and go kill infidels.
But what interests me about social sites is how they make money, for without money they won’t draw the traffic they need to draw advertisers, advertising being the subject at hand. Digital advertising either has or will soon surpass TV advertising in terms of dollars. That shift is a pretty big deal for people who make ads. Will that shift change ads? Well, yes and no. We all see banners but happily, we will see fewer of them because nobody clicks on them unless their headline is something like WIN FREE SEX, surely the best headline ever written since it contains three of the most potent words used by advertisers everywhere. But maybe our exposure to this sort of thing is changing the go-to clickbait words. Would you click on WIN FREE SEX?
Like everyone, I spend lots of time online. Too much, probably. So I see lots of ads, mostly those that align with my recent searches or site visits — reflecting all that big data being used in algorithms purporting to know what I give a damn about. I’m still seeing ads for sandals even though I bought the sandals I wanted two months ago. This sort of targeting works for a brief time, but I wish they’d get better at turning the damn thing off. And what about plain old talk-to-guys-where-they-are advertising, you know, like ESPN? It’s surprising how little advertising shows up on the ESPN site given its popularity. Maybe the big data crunching feedback loop and ad posting machine sees me as terrible spender so decided talking to this guy isn’t worth it. Don’t I wish! What’s really interesting about more and more online ads is this tiny, tiny little flag that shows up on so many banners like this one for AT&T:
See it there, at the top right? AdChoices? What the hell! You mean I can choose what sort of ads I can see? When I clicked on it I got this:
Wow, Ghostery Enterprise? How’d they come up with that name? And when will the lawyers at Snapchat decide it’s time to sue for logo infringement?
And what’s with “no-opt out provided”? That must cost somebody extra. Ya think? Ah, internet trolling — what’s not to love? But I digress. I clicked on the “opt out all” and then was told:
“Your browser is currently blocking 3rd party cookies. Many companies use 3rd party cookies to remember that you have opted out, so you will need to enable them if you want all of the opt-outs on this page to work.”
In red! How clever! If I turn off the cookie blocker for the handful of ad companies on the list, I’ll open myself up to all the ones who aren’t on the list. Sounds suspicious to me. But what do I know? At least with channel surfing before my trusty old TV, I could just go somewhere else, mostly to the ads on the other channel that seemed to appear at about the same time as the ones on the channel I just left.
How much circumventing are most people willing to undergo just to NOT SEE ads? Some I suppose. But this would be akin to not seeing cars on the way to the work. You could reasonably do so if you rode the bus and just stared at your smart phone. But come on, how many folks are doing that? And even those who do are looking at the ads on their phone and on the bus’s interior.
ESPN is pretty unobtrusive with its ads. Seems to have fewer of them than the New York Times, which I also visit daily. The Times has take-over ads that you have to turn off, but which don’t really turn off —they just get smaller or show up again below the fold, and there’s always two adjacent postage stamp ads to the left and right of the masthead for that day’s featured ad buyer, which is often the Times itself. Apparently the media placement sales team has off days.
And let’s not forget the “FROM OUR ADVERTISERS” pile, which looks a lot like the story pile just above it that links you to editorial content — a charming expression for what we used to call actual news (or in this case NYT-generated content):
The sponsored content guys, whoever they are (sometimes they’re me), have a really tough job. They get to show a jpeg, a headline, and tiny bit of copy to pull you into their sponsored content. And if you go for it, holy smoke, you’ll see some pretty damn rich information and eye candy — but for me, the first thing I noticed was something I could only view as a warning, or at least a suggestion:
I’ve heard lots of complaining about “native” or “sponsored” content. How it’s taking advantage of site visitors’ sensibilities, tricking them into thinking that the NYT (or whoever) is the source of this content. Bah! Anyone who thinks that, well, who’s to blame for their credulity? Of course, some internet sites don’t have the conscience of the Times, so there’s more egregious dodging of the difference between editorial and advertiser content. Salon.com is a good example. It loads a page take-over immediately when you link to it with automatic sound ready to wreck your day. But then it’s got bigger problems — mostly talking to its own echo chamber like its counterparts on the right.
Not long ago, and still to this day in many instances, we accepted advertising not because we like it but because we know it keeps the content we care about coming our way. If the ad intrudes, turn the page, scroll on. If the ad agency is doing its job, readers stop and look at it. Plus ads tell us what’s on sale, alert us to something we might enjoy owning or doing, and help keep the system we have, like it or not, working. Even with the Times, which has one of the largest paid subscription bases in its category, the amount of intrusion is minimal and asks only that viewers PAY ATTENTION. If you can’t tell the difference between editorial and sponsored content, who’s at fault? Hard to say when we find so many people willing to support the likes of Donald Trump. But that’s a subject of a different post altogether.
So friending and linking and liking will continue to connect us to those we wish to stay in touch with for whatever reason. This boon to our social interchange and ready connection to new and old friends and family is all made possible because someone, somewhere wants to sell us something. I’m good with that. Our list of friends and connections will grow, however tenuous our relationship to them may be. Along the way, who we think of as a friend or connection won’t change much, for we all unconsciously or otherwise, construct a Ven diagram of who our friends really are:
Calling everyone who’s a friend on Facebook a friend seems a bit of a sham, if by friend you mean someone who might help you move, hold the ladder while you clean the gutters, or come over for the Super Bowl gathering you’re notoriously famous for. Maybe we need a new name for this special class of friends. Some languages have formal and informal versions of “you” — maybe we need an expression for our informal, true friends. Acquaintances is okay, but sounds too hoity-toity. BFF comes to mind, but that sounds like a sandwich at Arby’s or Burger King. What do you suggest? Send along your ideas to email@example.com and I’ll share them in a future post open to everyone. Everyone being what advertisers really want from us, not just our friends.
©2016 John Hofmeister
When I'm not writing for clients, I write about things that interest me. Quite of bit of satire, a genre that has become increasingly difficult to work in since reality has become such a farce.