Facebook and the “reasonable consumer.”


The days of social media being something just “the kids” are doing is positively over. There are countless platforms and apps that continue to evolve right before our very eyes, thumbs and keystrokes.

We’re seeing so many different options on behalf of our clients, but we’re also seeing a more diverse field of participants, their associated demographics and regularity of use. Undoubtedly, Facebook remains the leader of the social media pack with more than 1.28 billion active users.

Because of its user experience, it’s easy to forget that Facebook is a company, whose growth and policies have been examined and studied in movies, books, business reviews and beyond. While it shows no sign of slowing down, for every cat video, wedding photo or birthday we share, there is the looming issue of privacy and, ultimately, how our personal information is used. Of course, the fine print of the Facebook user agreement reads like a tuned instrument of legalese with a dash of hip. But just recently, it was discovered that the company was poking around in our collective hearts and minds like it had never done before.

Over the course of a week in January of 2012, nearly 700,000 users had their “News Feed” altered by an algorithm that omitted posts based on the amount of positive or negative content. Facebook then tracked the activity of those same users to see how they reacted to the omissions and to see if their own posts became more positive or negative as a result. Put another way, imagine that before you read a book, someone had ripped out all of the funny parts to see if they could intentionally make you less happy. During the experiment, more than 3 million posts were affected. The problem is, Facebook didn’t tell these “subjects” what they were doing with their news feeds. Equally troublesome, they didn’t have permission. But we’ll get to that.

Since the news broke via a complaint filed by the Electronic Privacy Center (EPIC), much has been written about this emotional experiment. Before the filing, it’s doubtful many Facebook users had ever even heard of EPIC. With the curtain pulled back, and in the wake of the obvious public outcry, apologies were eventually issued … sort of. EPIC’s complaint emphasizes that an “act or practice must be considered from the perspective of a reasonable consumer” to be legitimate and that Facebook’s evasion of that constitutes the key ingredient of a deception.

And then you have to consider the following:

“In May 2012, four months after the research at issue was conducted, Facebook made changes to its Data Use Policy. These changes included adding ‘internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement’ to the list of things for which Facebook may use information it receives from users.”
– The Electronic Privacy Center

As more details emerged, the field of advertising was highlighted as a possible benefactor of such efforts. Many went so far as to assume that advertisers would be able to buy and sell emotional reactions to help promote almost anything. But before we strap on foil helmets and cry conspiracy, we have to remember that for decades, the advertising industry has been tapping into the “reasonable consumer” through consistent research and testing of consumer habits, trying to effectively push emotional buttons. Today, we are more aware of this process, often applauding the creative flair of the man behind the curtain.

Social media content taps into consumers’ everyday lives like no other medium ever has, because it comes directly, organically from them. Word of mouth is still a major force in how we make our decisions, and social media has become a more organic vehicle for personal recommendations. Even though this could be the most notable example of how the social source can be tainted, good marketers and advertisers always respect how smart an audience can be, because they know people ask questions and don’t like being lied to. Only by being transparent and utilizing the trust and honesty of the consumer’s reactions do you create the best kind of customer: one of loyalty and longevity.

The business of advertising works best when it operates on the authentic satisfaction of the positive experience. More and more we see people valuing not only a product or service but how it is executed and by whom, evaluating every step of the buying process. When things go very well or very bad, people take to social media to offer awareness, making trust the only kind of emotional relationship that seems to matter. We as advertisers then have to make sure we offer clients the kind of guidance that is based on strategy and reality to tell their story. No tricks. No hiding information. Simply asking valuable questions, in the correct way, and letting people decide on their own if we got it right.

As social media continues to evolve, Facebook may find that the only algorithms they need to focus on are the ones that we as human beings already have hardwired in our hearts and minds: the search for truth and the value of original thought.

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