Facebook Doesn't Listen to You
People often feel like Facebook keeps the mic open on their phone and listens in on their conversations. How else can you explain the targeted ads? They assume that their smartphone is always listening to what they have to say, pulling information from the conversations they have, and sending them ads based on what they talk about. Talking to your spouse about buying a car? You'll get ads for a car. Telling your friends that you're looking for a new comedy to watch? You'll get ads for streaming services and all of the new shows that are coming out. But is Facebook really listening, or is it something else?
A Conspiracy Theory
According to Facebook creator and founder Mark Zuckerberg, the site does not listen in when you talk. They don't eavesdrop on your private conversations. He knows that people think that's how it works. He's heard the rumors. He dismissed it all as a conspiracy theory -- his words -- and maintained that Facebook does not engage in that type of behavior.
So how does Facebook do it? There are a few different ways, starting with location services. When you turn it on, they can track where you go and what you do. If you check in at a hotel every weekend, they know you travel a lot. If you go to a sports bar with friends, they know you like alcohol and sports -- or at least time with friends. If you have a long commute, they know that your car is likely very important to you. Everything that you do adds another piece to the puzzle. They can figure out what you value, what your life looks like, and what products and services may fit with your lifestyle. They can then target the ads properly.
One clear way that Facebook targets ads is by looking at your online interactions. They may notice that you always click links to certain types of sites or that you spend more time on those sites. They may see that you like certain types of content or tend to share it. Maybe you comment on it. If you start doing research for a product -- a new pair of shoes, for instance -- you're suddenly going to get a lot more ads for shoes. Facebook knows that you're interested and it will push those ads forward.
It doesn't always work. Maybe you make your decision and go buy the shoes in person. You're still going to get ads even though you no longer need to make a purchase. But it does ensure that you get more ads for things you really want, care about or connect with.
The whole time, Facebook is building its own profile for you. The site compiles an incredible amount of information. They can then make logical jumps and predict what you may need.
For instance, maybe you're in your 30s and you use Facebook to look up a local doctor's office. You check out their page for prenatal care and write down the phone number. Facebook knows things like your income level, your demographic, your friend groups, whether or not you're married, where you live and much more. They can quickly determine that you or your partner are pregnant. They can then begin to suggest items you may need -- a crib, diapers, a car seat -- based on all of the information they have put together. Even just looking up a car seat could tell them that you need a doctor if you don't have a child yet. It's all a web and it's all about making links. Facebook knows more about most people than they realize.
That could be why, as Mark Zuckerberg claims, they don't listen in. They already know enough without hearing what people talk about.