Late last week, Facebook announced that it would be reworking the set of various formats it offers to advertisers, to "simplify" its ad offerings. Among the changes, Ad Age reported, will be the end of a product called "sponsored stories" (although a Facebook executive said the stories would survive "as an idea"). Wired wrote that the changes will make it so that "every ad is automatically retrofitted with a social component."
This was of interest to me because I was a participant in Facebook's sponsorship program, though it took me a while to figure out that I was participating. I'm not very active on Facebook, because from my point of view, as a user, it has long since developed into an annoying spam farm. But in May, a friend of mine—an actual friend, in the pre-Zuckerberg sense of the word—published a book, and it seemed worth using Facebook to help him promote it. So I wrote up something about the book and threw in an Amazon link.
The book deals with the lives of Navy aviators, and with the author's own loss, at age 13, of his father in a flying accident at sea. My Facebook friends include people with military connections, who I thought might be a receptive audience. Because it's Facebook, my friends list also includes people I barely know and who come from very divergent real-world social contexts, so I wanted to avoid sounding jokey or glib, while also not sounding too ponderous and blurb-like.
On the latter point, I failed. I didn't realize how badly I'd failed till a few days later, when my brother sent me a screenshot of his Facebook feed. There, at the top, was my post about the book. Only it wasn't exactly mine anymore. Instead, it was now marked "sponsored." Other friends—friend-friends, people who actually know me and deal with me—chimed in to tell me that day after day, it appeared as if I were throwing this post of mine up at the top of their feeds.
Being non-virtual friends of mine, they recognized this as unusual behavior on my part. I'm often an asshole, but I'm not that kind of asshole. What had happened was that Amazon had bought my post, so it could serve it up as an advertisement. Facebook sold me off as an endorser or copywriter, without notification or consent, let alone a cut of the proceeds.
I've specified that my posts are only visible to friends of friends, which sounds like a measure of privacy when you're checking off boxes on a menu, but which doesn't actually draw a very tight perimeter—a Facebook spokesperson repeatedly ignored my questions about how many friends-of-friends I have, but a rough estimate tells me the number is around 100,000. Of that potential broadcast audience, 99.7 percent wouldn't know me as anyone but the guy bombing their feed with stuff about some book.
This is a Facebook product. This particular form of sponsorship will be modified, under Facebook's ad changes, but a Facebook spokesperson told me it will probably survive in some form. It is surely permitted under the current terms of service, which are of course completely unlike the terms of service when I originally signed up for the network, which is the now very old and very well established story of Facebook. You Are the Product, yes.
But the product is crappy. The current wave of content monetization inspires all sorts of objections. This is the one that might—that should—matter to the monetizers: Once you spam people with something, whatever it was to begin with, it's spam.
The ad that doesn't feel like an ad—this is the grail right now, for everyone, Gawker Media very much included. So we get the occasional humiliating advertorial post, with straight-up garbage dressed to resemble actual content, through which the advertiser (or the publication) tells the reader, "We think you are stupid, and we have bad taste." And the writers and the editors complain about them, and the bosses point out that the posts include "sponsored" in a little box where the subject tag usually goes, and life goes on, as it does at the New Yorker, when it runs those grim, witless cartoons styled to resemble New Yorker cartoons but with captions selling vodka or whatever they sell. No one who gets paid for this sort of thing will ever admit that it's a losing proposition, running an inferior commercial version of your own product. The readers neither trust it nor enjoy it.
And there are the even softer (plusher, more absorbent) sells. So from last night through this morning on Gawker, up near the top, you could see a post that John Cook wrote last week, in which he denounced the use of moist wipes for anal hygiene by people who aren't babies. This caught the eye of a manufacturer of toilet paper (and, capitalism being capitalism, of moist wipes for adults), which paid Gawker Media to promote the post.
Last week, you saw this post near the top of the page because we wanted you to read it. Today, you were seeing it there because the toilet-paper company wanted you to see the name of the toilet-paper company.
If you're a regular reader, the result is that you got the same story shoved at you two times. Advertisers don't care if they annoy you. So when everything is a potential vessel for advertising, everyone is annoying.