I have a beef with Facebook, a bone to pick, if you will (or even if you won’t). It’s a small beef, a minor bone, but small beef and minor bones are still beef and bones. (Anyone else hungry…?)
Although my birthday is in September, Jonathan said my birthday “gift” would be on the evening of October 22 and that it was a surprise. I could have googled “October 22, 2011 NYC” or checked Time Out or Playbill but for over a month I resisted the urge, violating my Wildeian principle that:
“The only way to resist temptation is to yield to it.”
I was rather proud of myself for this Herculean effort. I’d succeeded at it a few years ago, making it all the way into the Metropolitan Opera with my eyes closed, to be fabulously surprised by none other than Kristen Chenoweth appearing on stage in a Mets uniform (she was being silly, confusing the “Met” for “the Mets”).
Having succeeded once I had the confidence and determination I could do it again. I could make it all the way into whatever venue my true love had planned for me without knowing in advance what that might be. All went well; my self-discipline, while it exists, is not always predictable (whether “unpredictable self-discipline” is a contradiction is a topic for another blog post, for now assume it is real) but I made it all the way through Saturday afternoon without searching to discern my imminent surprise.
But then, like a fool, I decided to sign on to Facebook.
For we residents of the modern world it is no secret that the rulers of the internet – Facebook, Google…Yahoo sort of I suppose, etc. – use information that we freely give them – our “likes” and pageviews and status updates and probably even secret key words and phrases buried in our emails, instant messages, texts, and whatever else – as fodder for their complex algorithms that are designed to spit information back to us that they have calculated we want to know. And the magical thing about it is that it usually works! (not always, I’ll get into that below…)
When you open Facebook, a column to the right says “Sponsored.” You can create your own ad if you’d like and the beauty of it is that Facebook knows the best target for your ad so you don’t waste your money sending your Monster Truck Jam ads to, say, lifetime subscription members of the Museum of Modern Art. Perhaps there is a narrow slice of a venn diagram where those two groups intersect but the probability is negligible I’m sure. Unless I’m wrong but that’s not my point.
When I opened Facebook yesterday afternoon a lovely ad caught my eye! There was a beautiful picture of the multi-talented singer and actor Audra McDonald, Tony winner (x 4 according to Wikipedia but I thought it was 6…anyway…) Under Ms. McDonald’s image was a listing for “Carnegie Hall – October 22!” My first thought was “OMG! [yes, like many of us web-slaves I now think in emoticons and text abbreviations] I wonder if Jonathan knows about this?” then I thought, “Of course he knows, stupid, but I wonder when this is, what date is today..October…OMG that’s today!”
Then the realization sank in. “omg that’s today.” My surprise had been revealed to me. I knew then that Jonathan was taking me to Carnegie Hall to see Audra McDonald. I was then overcome with a sense of elation – I’M GOING TO SEE AUDRA McDONALD AT CARNEGIE HALL! mixed with the deflation from having the “surprise” element of my surprise stolen from me.
In the range of world problems, this is minuscule, barely recognizable next to starvation, disease, violence, corporate fraud, the theft of the American dream, Republican debates…but it still annoyed me and if you think about it, it raises some questions. Taking me to that concert was indeed the best birthday present ever, and Jonathan, an excellent gift-giver, knew that. But so did Facebook’s ad recommendation algorithm. For a terrible gift-selector like me, it presents some tempting questions:
– Can I ask Facebook to recommend gifts for my loved ones? At this point I honestly believe Facebook would do a better job of choosing gifts for the people in my life than I would.
– What does that say about me as a partner, brother, son, friend?
– But…is this invading their privacy?
– Facebook’s algorithm can search for keywords in someone’s messages so naturally it has an unfair advantage but should I be using that information to help me choose gifts, or restaurants, or other choices that used to be the sole purview of actual carbon-based life forms? I assume Google does the same thing, so substitute Google if you avoid Facebook.
And there’s another problem, where all these computer algorithms get it wrong. As a writer and as someone who is naturally curious, I read about a lot of things that are NOT in my set of personal interests. (Monster Truck Jams, for example.) What is the Tea Party really all about? Who are the Koch brothers? How much do Afghan farmers get paid for raising opium? Can an individual really buy a small Caribbean Island all for themselves? (that last one actually IS something I’m interested in.) I presume that all of these searches of mine are stored in some permanent digital record as part of my interests. In fact, underneath the ad for Audra McDonald there was another asking me, “Are you a single Christian man? Meet single Christian women!”
No, Facebook, I’m not. And you, Mark Zuckerberg, are not as smart as you think you are. AND YOU RUINED MY SURPRISE! (If you put $100,000 in my PayPal account by tonight I’ll quit thinking about suing your smug billionaire ass). FYI – I’m NOT interested in that luxury vacation to tour poppy fields in Kandahar.
PS – you can find me on Facebook