Please: Let’s Be Real About Facebook

Facebook is designed to capture and sell our attention, so we should stop being surprised that it works.

November 2, 2017

Do you use Facebook to keep up with your network of family and friends?

If so, you have much in common with 2.01 billion other people in the world who use Facebook, 1.32 billion of whom log in each day.

Back in about 2009, recognizing how integral Facebook was becoming to people’s lives, many of us who work in higher education marketing, communications, and advancement began to believe that it was important to engage people on Facebook, where they really were, as opposed to where we wanted them to be — on platforms that we designed for them that were much less engaging.

Fast forward to 2017. Facebook utilities power all kinds of activities: campus groups use them to organize events, faculty Livestream classes, thought leaders post content to Facebook, and colleagues use Facebook Groups to stay in touch with each other.

But let’s be clear about what Facebook is and why it offers so many free services and utilities and keeps your News Feeds stuffed with content that you’re tempted to share. Facebook desperately needs you to stay engaged with it because it peddles your attention to advertisers. They, in turn, use what Facebook knows about you to sell something to you.

This is called surveillance capitalism and while Google may have originated it, Facebook refined it. It cleverly disguises what it really does behind the useful services, news, and other enticements it overlays on your social network. And while there are ways to mask your activities from Google (by using a VPN and services such as DuckDuckGo and StartPage, for example), Facebook gives you little choice. If you use it, you’re surveilled. Anyone who pays can mine the considerable amount of information Facebook has amassed about you to tailor their message to you.

And you know what? It works.

Precisely because Facebook advertising is so highly targeted, it works.

So please: don’t act surprised that colleges and universities use Facebook ads to reach their audiences in much the same way that commercial brands, nonprofits, political campaigns — and, apparently, Russian trolls — do.

Let me repeat: it gets results. For that reason — and because so many people use Facebook — it’s become integral to higher ed marketing, communications, and advancement strategies.

One advancement officer I interviewed last year told me that his institution uploaded nearly 250,000 alumni email addresses into Facebook and came up with more than 100,000 matches. He pointed out that when the university promoted Facebook posts or advertised to them, it was reaching people who had a genuine affiliation to the institution.

I appreciate this point of view: we all want relevant content. And, furthermore, Facebook has made it harder for institutions to get even the best content into the News Feeds of fans without paying for placing it there. So I understand why colleges and universities promote posts and advertise on Facebook — and use these techniques to reach prospective students.

Most teens seem to be more realistic about Facebook than those of us who are shocked, shocked, by this practice. In research we and NRCCUA conducted with teenage college applicants earlier in the year, 48 percent of respondents told us that they noticed ads for a college on other websites or in their social feeds after they had visited that college’s website. Their reaction? More than half of those who saw these ads— 57 percent — said that this had no impact on their perception of that institution. And a third viewed it as somewhat to very positive.

So let’s be real about Facebook. Facebook and other online services will continue to use the information they hoover up about those who use them unless governments force change, something that the EU is exploring. And let’s agree that the only recourse we have is to get used to having our attention sold or stop using these services. But let’s not be shocked that Facebook is doing exactly what it’s designed to do.

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