Facebook is using you, whether you know it or not. Sometimes it's obvious: you like a page, you click share, Facebook benefits. At other times, you're blissfully unaware until a colleague asks you about a photo they saw that you liked. Facebook's tricksy behaviour can make you a major source of annoyances to family and friends. Here's how it works, and how to stop it.
Title photo made using NAS Creatives (Shutterstock)
When we discuss about the ways that Facebook uses your personal information on Lifehacker, we're often talking about why you should care about your privacy, or how Facebook tracks your activity. This time around, we're discussing how your Facebook habits are used -- with or without your knowledge -- to bother your friends with ads that they (inevitably) associate with you. It's a nuisance, but it can be stopped. Here's what you need to know.
EdgeRank: How Facebook Pimps You
You've probably noticed an increase in posts in your news feed that say "[Your Friend] likes [Random Group]'s photo," with the full photo and text of the group's post right there, as though you liked the group yourself. On your phone or tablet, you may have seen "Sponsored Posts" that say "[Another Friend] likes [Random Company]" with an invitation to like that page as well. It's annoying, to be sure, but it's also fairly lear that your friend didn't choose to advertise the page to you -- it's Facebook doing that.
The logic that Facebook uses to decide what lands in your friends' feeds is called "EdgeRank," and it's purposefully obscure -- after all, if everyone understood it clearly (lots of people claim to, but don't), advertisers wouldn't have to pay to promote posts, and users would be able to easily filter their feeds and block ads they don't want to see.
EdgeRank serves two purposes: For people who operate Facebook pages and manage brands, it's the algorithm that decides whether your post gets out to as many of your fans as possible. For users, it's the likelihood you'll see something in your feed liked or shared by someone else. It's also the maths that governs why your news feed refuses to stay in real chronological order, even after you set it to "most recent".
We're not talking about your own status updates, photos or anything you post to Facebook yourself -- just the way you interact with other pages, groups, and people on Facebook. It's one thing if your news feed is full of baby pictures from your old high school friends -- it's quite another when every post you like from a group you follow ends up in all of your friends' news feeds without you knowing or being able to control who sees it.
How Facebook Uses You For Virality
The Problem: When you see a post in your news feed from a group you've never heard of, or like a heartwarming photo or a campaign for a cause, you might assume it's because your friend chose to share it with their followers by clicking the "share" button. That's not the case: chances are they thought it was good, clicked Like, and moved on. A quick way to check is to visit their profile directly: if you don't see the post there, then Facebook decided that you might like to see it too, not your friend.
This is annoying, but it's especially problematic when you click like on something that may not be work-safe, assuming that "like" is not the same as "share", so "who'll see it, right?" For example, one of my friends is a mode, and I'm not sure I'd want my browsing past her artsy portfolio shots as a visible activity to anyone who peeked over my shoulder at work. By "liking" her posts about her photo shoots, I run the risk of unintentionally sharing her photos with my Facebook friends, and having their bosses scold them for looking at scantily-clad model pics. See the problem?
Unfortunately there's no way out of this: Facebook doesn't let you set the privacy level of something you've liked. If the original poster shared publicly, your like is public as well, and it may well land in a friend's new feed.
This is EdgeRank in action: it's not sinister, it's just Facebook deciding that your friends may have similar interests and may like what you like. The downside is that it populates your news feed with photos and updates from pages you may have no interest in, and does the same to your friends. We've shown you how to clean up your own feed, but how do you avoid cluttering up everyone else's feed?
The Solution: First, think before you click the Like button. There's no way to determine which likes will be posted to which friends, so before you like that photo on one of your favourite pages, assume that it could be broadcast to all of your friends. Here are some other tips:
- Hide those pages you like from your profile and set their posting rights to "only me". In our tests, doing this hid the things we liked from those groups from other people's feeds -- but we can't be 100 per cent sure this will work for everyone.
- Check your activity log. This is the only way to know which of your likes are public and which aren't (Go to your profile, then click "Activity Log".) You'll see a history of every status update, photo, and shared item you've liked, along with an icon that'll tell you whether it's public or shared only with friends. Facebook usually doesn't let you change the visibility of those entries, but you can "unlike" something if you don't want it in someone else's feed with your name plastered over it.
- Use Social Fixer to tame your own feed. You can use Social Fixer to trim down those types of re-liked posts in your own feed, removing the temptation to like them yourself. Still, this doesn't stop Facebook from re-sharing groups you actually do like with your friends that don't.
How Facebook Uses You To Sponsor Brands
The Problem: You've seen the ads before: Friend A, B, and C Like [Brand], with a Like button next to it. They're right there in the middle of your news feed -- sometimes there are two or three of them together in a big "sponsored" box. It's annoying, especially when the brand in question isn't even remotely interesting to you. Save your friends the hassle, and audit the brands and companies you like on Facebook.
The Solution: Unlike pages and brands that you don't need an active relationship with, and don't like new ones unless you need to. Save your friends the irritation of seeing "So-and-So Likes A Company You Hate" every time they log in to Facebook and remove brands you don't feel like providing free advertising for.
We understand: many companies offer great customer service, discounts, and other incentives to like them on Facebook. But in many cases you have probably liked companies simply because you wanted to check out their Facebook page, or because they were running a contest that required you to like them -- not because they offer you any tangible benefit today.
Here are some alternative strategies to avoid getting stuck on the Like train:
- Follow the same companies on Twitter instead. Twitter doesn't come with the same commitment that Facebook does, or the same access to your friends. You can also use Twitter lists to stay on top of deals and specials without having to like or follow them at all.
- Set up a second Facebook account for "liking" purposes. A second account, one that you only use for things like promotions and discounts, is invaluable -- stuff it full of as much or as little information as you choose to provide, and then use it instead of your main account. Note: Facebook's policy is one person-one account, so you'd technically be violating Facebook's terms of service by doing this, but no-one is likely to notice.
Facebook Isn't Planning To Stop
Facebook is unlikely to abandon its habit of peppering your friends' ad stream with pseudo-ads and random Likes. Facebook's Graph Search feature gives you a handy new way to find people who share interests with you, but it also gives advertisers a way to cross-reference people's likes and interests so they can better target who should see their brand or product. Image from the always funny Actual Facebook Graph Searches.
Graph Search is only currently limited to a small number of people and it respects your privacy settings. If you're smart about keeping your privacy settings where they should be, you don't have anything to worry about from Graph Search. Similarly, it's not certain that Graph Search is even open to advertisers right now, so there's no reason to get out the torches and the pitchforks.
Another example of the same philosophy was Facebook's Social Reader. Graph Search is in the future, but Social Reader is a great example of a Facebook feature that went belly up because people didn't care too much for their activity being shared automatically and without their explicit permission each time it was used. News sites using Social Reader, like The Washington Post and The Guardian saw tumbling numbers last year as readers ditched them en masse. That experiment failed, but that doesn't mean Facebook will stop; it will just seek out alternative approaches.
The Bottom Line: Know What You're Getting Into
The truth is that Facebook is a free service to users, and it needs to make money somehow, and that money will be made using your data. The only question is how.
The moral of the story here is to be careful with the things you like, because it's not just things you share that end up in your friends' news feeds. Since you can't even go to your profile to see what's been shared on your behalf, it's impossible to tell unless a friend lets you know. So follow good basic Facebook hygiene: stay on top of your privacy settings, the post visibility of apps you use (remember: "Only Me" is your friend,) and watch how often you click "Share". Oh, and of course: Every time Facebook makes an arcane change, make sure to check those preferences again and update them as necessary.