Facebook: The End of Dislike

Facebook’s “Like” button is about to start popping up all over the web. By installing a plugin, visitors to your site who are already logged in to Facebook (which is increasingly likely) can recommend your content with one click the same way they currently endorse friends’ status updates with a thumbs up.

It’s a no-brainer for Facebook, which will be able to collect even more information about users’ preferences. By analyzing the data, Facebook will be able to report to – for example – CNN about what “type” of person likes what kinds of content on CNN.com.

CNN.com will in turn be able to tell advertisers what types of people – with what types of purchasing habits – visit the site and read which articles, allowing advertisers to personalize – or target – their message.

Internet radio site Pandora (US only), for example,

“will now be able to look directly at your Facebook profile and use public information — name, profile picture, gender and connections, plus anything else you’ve made public — to give you a personalized experience. So if I have already publicly stated through my Facebook interests page that I like a musical artist — say, The Talking Heads — the first song I hear when I go to Pandora will be a Talking Heads song or something that Pandora thinks is similar.” (Source: gigaom.com)

It’s essentially that scene in Minority Report where John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) is identified via retinal scan and then deluged with hyper-personalized ads — a prospect which, to be honest, I’ve always found intriguing for its potential to reduce the amount of message-waste in my life.

Ads for next year’s Lexus, or last month’s weight-loss fad, or this week’s scented thingamagig are psychic pollution — in other words, messages that have no chance of attracting my business and simply clutter my limited mental space. If I could avoid blanket advertising by pre-selecting ads for Guinness, Apple, and Malcolm Gladwell books well then it’s perhaps a small price to pay.

Facebook didn’t invent the “If you like X then you might like Y” model. What Facebook is supposedly doing is pioneering an invasive method for determining that you like X in the first place. (Is it an invasion of privacy if you walk into a music store wearing a Bruce Springsteen shirt and the salesperson tries to sell you Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible?)

I almost can’t help responding to this kind of announcement – and its inevitable backlash – with “Welcome to the future,” despite the fact that I find the future underwhelming and uninspiring, and I more or less agree with the backlash.

My problem is with the logic of the if-then model itself. Cass Sunstein has documented the tendency of internet users to seek out and consume content that reinforces their existing beliefs and preferences, partly due to the fact that the medium makes it so easy.

When looked upon favourably, “narrow-casting” is the consumption equivalent of filtering out ads for stuff you’re not interested in. The difference is that being exposed to ideas one opposes and art that challenges ones sensibilities expands one’s sense of self and the world, whereas being exposed to more and more ads simply expands one’s repertoire of jingles.

The end result of narrow-casting is necessarily narrow-mindedness, the principle beneficiary of which is the status quo. I’d rather see a DISLIKE button on web content so that people with similar Facebook profiles to mine can someday receive recommendations of the form: “If you like X, then you might dislike Y. Therefore you’ll be doing yourself a favour by reading Y.”