Why I’m bullish on a Facebook I don’t trust

I wrote a post yesterday about the uncanny valley of advertising, and how we’re currently in this weird area where advertisers know just enough about us to make it creepy, but not enough to make it perfectly relevant. I made the mistake in my post of comparing a hyper-relevant advertising service to a friend, in that they know you intimately and can make incredibly useful suggestions for your life. Some people found this comparison off-putting, which I understand. I’m not at all suggesting that we replace our friends with advertising networks. I was searching for a metaphor for what a world of such hyper-relevant advertising would look like.

One of the things pointed out to me was that a huge difference between a friend and an advertising network is that a friend has your best interests at heart, while an advertiser doesn’t. Ignoring the fact that this isn’t always true (both Ford and Fred would be happy for me if I bought a new truck, even though it would be a lousy financial decision), in a world of hyper-targeted and hyper-relevant advertising, would we see advertisers and consumers interests align more? Maybe much of the anger that’s currently directed at these types of intrusive advertising is because we’ve never had really hyper-relevant advertising.

Or have we? Enter Google.

One thing that I find really interesting in talking with people who are very vocal about their distaste for advertising (in general) is that many of them don’t seem to mind ads against their Google search results. In fact, for many tech people I know, ads on Google are literally the only ads they ever notice, let alone click on. Why is this? I think it’s because Google offers this hyper-relevant advertising experience to some degree, but in a slightly different context.

We find out about new things in two ways: either we go looking for it, or we discover it through serendipity.

In the first case, we have a problem or a question, and we use tools like Google and Wikipedia and a knowledgable friend to find the answer.

In the second case, we still have the problem or the question, we just don’t know we do. So the answer finds us. It could be from a friend, from a book we happen to read, a story overhead on the train, etc. But the point is that we weren’t looking for this information, it found us.

Google was really the first company to nail hyper-relevant advertising for the first scenario. We go to Google to search for things, and we expect to get an answer back. And while building a search engine like Google isn’t easy, it’s a hell of a lot easier to show a relevant answer (whether ad or organic result) to an asked question than to a question a user didn’t know they had.

How do you show users an answer to a question they don’t even know about yet? And more importantly, how do you do it perfectly, so that they always care about that answer? That’s not just hard, that’s almost impossible. But that’s what hyper-targeted advertising for discovery (instead of search) would look like.

The only way you could do this would be to create a near-flawless model of a person, their relationships, their tastes, their hopes and aspirations. And to do that, you need absolutely ridiculous amounts of information about them. You would have to follow them around day and night and record every tiny thing they did.

And right now, no one on the planet is better positioned for that than Facebook is. They have it all, gobbling up billions of datapoints per day about people’s tastes, relationships, habits, everything. Only Google comes close to having that much data, but they don’t have anywhere close to the amount of social data that Facebook has. And who we know and interact with matters deeply, so having that data is crucial.

This is why I think Facebook could be worth the valuation they’ve got now. They can build an advertising network that offers just a glimmer of the kind of hyper-relevancy that I’m envisioning. Imagine being shown a special discount on Zappos on a pair of shoes that you were discussing with a friend yesterday. Or a buy-one-get-one-free deal on Fandango for The Green Hornet because you like superhero movies AND because you and your cousin Joey are both big Seth Rogen fans and Joey’s going to be visiting tomorrow and you’re not working because you switched shifts with Sabrina, who is off to a spanish lesson that she booked because she’s always wanted to learn it AND she’s visiting Argentina with her friend Eric, who got a great deal on the hotel because he’s trying to bulk up and the hotel has a great gym and…

You get the idea.

Now, if all this sounds a bit dystopian, I understand. A perfect model of you in a computer that’s predicting what you will and won’t be interested in? Even if it is a long way off, the thought is downright creepy. But I’m honestly not sure if that’s because it genuinely is creepy (and always will be), or if it’s because we just can’t imagine such a world. It might just be that we can’t picture a world where advertisers interests are aligned with consumers and people enjoy ads because they’re always helpful and relevant. A world where advertising genuinely improves the lives of everyone it touches.

Nah. I tend to think it’s just creepy, but it is fun to think about. What do you think?