Is limited representation bad for advertisers?

I’m writing a chapter about the representation of individual persons this month so I’ve been thinking more than usual about the justifications for limiting profile options.

One common reason for, say, giving users of your system a limited set of predefined options to choose from (drop-down menus, toggle switch, ticky boxes, etc) is that such strict categorisation allows for easy collection of specific data. You can more easily compare users. And often – for example, if you’re using a free corporate social media service – this categorisation ties right into the advertising side of the business; they offer targeted advertising services to other businesses wanting web traffic in order to remain financially viable.

I was looking at Facebook’s ad targeting page this week, which outlines the process of targeting specific demographics and later seeing detailed metrics that help you review your approach. (Check it out, it’s interesting!)

Another concept I’ve been looking at a lot this week is that of ‘Big Data’. I had some trouble defining it so I evaluated other attempts . . . which weren’t as helpful as I had hoped. It appears Big Data is one of those new buzz words that everyone is using and defining differently in relation to their own work or theoretical context.

However, the MIKE2.0 site offers an interesting understanding that emphasises the complexity of data, rather than its size, as being the definitive property of Big Data. This appeals to me and my approach because it highlights the confusion and potential for new understandings that this phenomenon introduces. To complement this, I also like Mac Slocum’s description of social data as “an oracle waiting for a question” in this context. There is just so much data out there and the new problems we face are less to do with accessing data than trying to ask the right questions to find out something new and exciting.

And this is where we return to Facebook. I’ve always thought the best argument for limited representation (gender/sex is always a good example, but other categories are just as relevant here) is that it helps with their advertisers. However, we have technology that can produce rich datasets and give us more details about individuals, so wouldn’t allowing a greater range of representation actually improve targeted advertising? Companies can include or exclude demographics and then better review the effectiveness of their advertising in much more detail.

One example that Facebook gives is a success story where a wedding photography business targeted women aged 24-30 who were recently engaged. Of course this works*, but it would be even more successful if they could look at and target finer demographics within this quite broad dataset. Imagine if Facebook simply allowed for an ‘other’ gender/sex option – even this simple change would help many advertisers not pay to target ‘those crazy, politically correct hippies who probably wouldn’t want my products anyway’, and give many more advertisers the ability to more easily target this specialised group.

Big Data is complicated, but it enables us to uncover interesting and important details. And where corporations such as Facebook may benefit from expanding its user options, government funded projects like the census who still enforce a male/female binary and ignore non-standard religions – thus making us all miss out on exploring and better understanding our diverse population now and in the future, which is an important aspect of its purpose – really have no excuse.

Admittedly, this is the very early stage of an idea so it’s not completely thought out, but it’s the first time I’ve been able to see Facebook’s binary gender/sex field as being detrimental to their business and thought this was important enough to share.

* As much as any online advertising works, at least. I’m always surprised to hear that people click on advertising links, because it’s counters my own practices so strongly. But I’m happy these people are out there, keeping the Internet alive!

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