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Is Facebook Even Good at Being Creepy?

Guess what? It’s really easy to find out.

Getty Images
Getty Images

I knew Facebook’s ad-targeting capabilities were more than a little off the day the social network served me, a crimson-bleeding Alabama football fan, a sponsored post peddling Auburn swag. Really, Zuck? That was nearly three years ago, and Facebook has since sought to improve the relevance of its ads through a product called ad preferences. Like an all-knowing-but-also-fairly-drunk Big Brother, Facebook has tracked all of our activity on the social network and across other websites and apps to try to paint a clear, monetizable picture of our digital selves. By monitoring our clicks, Facebook believes it can divine our favorite genres of music, our family trees, and, as a New York Times story this week pointed out, even our political affiliation.

Earlier this month, Facebook updated the ad-preferences page to make it easier to see just what interests the social network assumes we harbor. Unfortunately, some of the company’s hunches are pretty far off base. Yes, Facebook, you surmised that I like hip-hop music thanks to the musicians I wrote into the “Favorite Artists” box on my profile when I was 17. But where’d you get the idea that I like “doom metal” or “drone music?” I have never watched, discussed, or heard of a German television concert series called The Dome, so I’d rather not see ads about it. And the assertion that I’m a fan of The Matrix Revolutions simply because I once said I liked The Matrix is near-libelous.

Facebook’s knowledge of its own users is both eerily accurate and laughably deficient at the same time, depending on what category you analyze (proof Zuck is still trolling me: One of my sports interests is “Auburn Tigers Men’s Basketball”). Ringer staffers dove into their own ad preferences to determine just how savvy Facebook’s targeting techniques are. Check out your own ad preferences here (thankfully you can delete the silly ones), and if you’d rather Facebook not follow you to the ends of the web, use this guide to limit the company’s ad-targeting abilities. — Victor Luckerson

Molly McHugh: Looking at these pages is less like looking at things I am actually interested in and more like looking at a randomized list of things I’ve ever typed into a search engine. I mean, obviously I like Fargo and The Big Lebowski, but probably not to the point that advertisers should be targeting me because of this. (I’m never gonna buy that “the Dude” T-shirt I keep seeing promoted in my feed.) I am vaguely aware of the space-western movie genre, but only just. Venmo has a very high placement in my interests and this actually feels very accurate. Perhaps the most confusing interest here is the movie Honey 3: Dare to Dance, though, honestly, I wish this were actually one of my interests, and maybe it should be. (Where can I stream this film? Let me know in the comments.) Maybe I wish I were the person Facebook thinks I am…

Or maybe not! I don’t know what Temptalia is, but this picture makes me feel unsafe:

Actually, now I feel unsafe:

I don’t know what any of this truly means or how anyone would advertise against it:

Happy to know Facebook is keeping tabs on my loneliness quotient!

Sometimes they just really get it right though, you know?

Katie Baker: Fine, Facebook, you’re right that I’m a sucker for the overpriced crib skirts and inexplicable campfire pillows at Land of Nod. (It’s part of being a new mom, just like having spit up in your hair and opinions on sleep sacks.) And we’ll agree to call “Navigation” a hobby and activity of mine: Maps are dope!! But labeling me as “away from hometown,” while true, seems nagging. I KNOW I need to figure out my holiday travel plans, OK?! And having the lone entry under “People” be “Bill Simmons (Public Figure)” makes me feel like the creepiest employee of all time. Finally, it’s one thing to characterize me as “Very Liberal” — questionable, though compared to my parents and in-laws, correct — but what makes you think I’m part of the Social Democratic Party of Croatia?! It has to be because I hearted Zach Lowe’s wedding photos that one time.

Victor Luckerson: Overall, of the various TV show characters (Omar Little), movie genres (“hood film”), diplomatic occupations (“ambassador”), and musical obsessions (OutKast discography) Facebook thinks define me, 58 percent were people or things I actually enjoy. The social network is actually more savvy at deducing things about my real-world life than about my pop culture preferences. Facebook knows that both my parents are alive, that I live with roommates, that I’m a frequent traveler and that my “ethnic affinity” is African American. These demographic profiles are playing an increasingly important role in shaping the Facebook experience thanks to highly specific marketing. Universal Pictures, for example, advertised the film Straight Outta Compton with different trailers for white and black audiences on Facebook, with the white trailer focusing on Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, while the black trailer focused on the entire group of N.W.A.

Rubie Edmondson: Facebook describes my top-three “Hobbies and Activities” thusly:

  • Dogs
  • Penguin (accompanied by a charming photo of a baby Gentoo in the snow)
  • Seaside resort

This, to be frank, is about as close as anyone will ever get to summing me up as a person with three nouns.

The next three items listed are:

  • Uninterruptible power supply: Gonna assume that this is the result of clicking a random Amazon ad at some point.
  • Staining (accompanied by a photo of a microscope): I’m glad they clarified this with a photo, since I had completely forgotten that “staining” was a thing in science until today. In fact, I haven’t touched a microscope since 11th-grade biology — not that Facebook would know about it, since that was back in the glory days when you needed a college email to get an account.
  • Nail (fastener): Close, but wrong parenthetical. “Nail (finger/toe)” would be much more relevant to my esthetic interests.

No one would ever say that batting .500 is bad, necessarily, but I think being so right yet so wrong at the same time nets out to an L.

Kate Knibbs: My ad profile is nonsense and I feel great about it. Aside from targeting me for generic ad topics like “bedroom,” Facebook thinks I want to see ads about stuff I actively dislike. These are the sports Facebook thinks I like: NASCAR on Fox, baseball, and kickboxing. Those are my bottom three sports, Zuckerberg! Scrolling through my ad profile is like scrolling through a deranged stranger’s diary, a stranger who loves the 1931 film 24 Hours. I don’t know what foul things I did in my browser to make Facebook think I’m a Kathie Lee & Hoda–watching spirituality enthusiast who plays The Sims, but I don’t care, because I find Facebook’s wrongness very calming. I hadn’t even heard of some of the things it thought I liked, and the stuff it was right about (yes, I do live away from my family, and yes, I do like “entertainment” and “music”) were so broad that they were meaningless. Sometimes I feel like Facebook is this unstoppable behemoth eating up my job and my time and parts of my sanity, but today I think Facebook is a DUMBO and I’m thrilled.

Riley McAtee: Some of Facebook’s suggestions for me were pretty unremarkable: Futurama, DeMarcus Cousins, Android devices, The Ringer (1931 Film) — all reasonable assumptions. Then it got a little weird when “Nuclear fusion,” “Bench (British clothing brand),” “Guard (American and Canadian football),” and “Small business owner” popped up. OK, so Facebook thinks I’m a fashionable nuclear scientist who owns my own small business and spends some time playing offensive line. That’s not accurate, but not exactly creepy. Then I got to “Auschwitz Concentration Camp,” which is an actual suggestion that Facebook thinks I’m interested in, and is totally disturbing, wrong, and generally fucked up on every level I can conceive of. I hope it’s just because I liked the page for Maus. Still, seeing it pop up was under my “Interests” was not cool — I’ve never hit “remove” so quickly.

Alyssa Bereznak: The majority of my Facebook interests are dated (and mostly embarrassing) entries from embarrassing Alyssa Life Phases that I’d rather not go very into depth on: Yes, in high school I was obsessed with The Shins, Unsolved Mysteries, and the idea of owning a lot of candles. Once I got to college, I may have had a brief love of Girl Talk and Weeds. And, ugh, OK, as soon as I moved to Brooklyn, I went straight to the Humans of New York Facebook page and liked the shit out of it.

But most of the stuff that Facebook thinks I’m into is wildly random, and often, basic misinterpretations of stuff that happened in my life. I may have studied abroad in France for half a year, but there’s no way I ever developed an interest in “French House.” I read Vulture and make fun of Fox occasionally, but that does not mean my “hobbies and interests” include actual vultures and foxes. I work at The Ringer but I’ve never seen the 1931 movie The Ringer (dope name though). I wrote about the Beyhive once, but generally hate being near bumblebees. I’m not sure whether to be relieved or worried about the basic lack of artificial intelligence that led to these misunderstandings. At the very least, however, Facebook understands my unhealthy love of cats. I’d be very worried for them if they missed that.