I read about the Facebook Exchange (FBX) curious as to what it meant for online privacy. I’m not of the belief that targeted advertising is all good or bad, but I do think we should have the ability to pick and choose how we’re tracked online and by whom. From Facebook to Google, we’re opted in to these programs before, or if, we can choose otherwise, which raises the question: is a tailored web a better one? And what can we do about it?


Until this year, Facebook placed ads in our feeds based on information we supplied with every “Like” we clicked and the what we shared in our profiles. With FBX, those ads that pop up are no longer there because of what we’ve shared knowingly. If you visit a site that is in the FBX ad network, ads will show up in your Facebook feed via cookies placed in your browser. It’s called retargeting.

Retargeting, referred to as remarketing at Google and in some circles as remessaging, is commonly used across the web, but it’s new to Facebook, and not all users are aware it’s taking place.

Considering the findings of the recent Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project Winter 2012 Tracking Survey, it seems that most people aren’t thrilled by the idea of targeted ads.

68% of those in the study said, “I’m NOT OKAY with targeted advertising because I don’t like having my online behavior tracked and analyzed.”

73% said they weren’t comfortable with search engines collecting data to “personalize your future search results.” They considered it “an invasion of privacy.”

And privacy concerns, as a recent Forbes article notes, is not just for Digital Immigrants. Digital Natives seem as concerned as anyone. Privacy concerns can no longer be explained as some issue for those out of touch with how the the web works. People of all ages want the ability to decide when and where they become data.

So, if people aren’t happy about it, why isn’t it changing?

Pew found that only 38% of those in the survey knew how to make their online lives more private. “Most internet users say they do not know how to limit the information that is collected about them by a website.”


Retargeting, remarketing, whatever you want to call it, it all works by tailoring the web to our browsing history. By giving us search results and advertisements most relevant to our online history. FBX reports have shown that businesses are making up to 16 times what they spend on ads because of retargeting. It’s no surprise they’ve joined in.

And yet, I often wonder whether sites like Facebook, Google, or Yahoo consider that a more personalized web isn’t necessarily what we want. I find it bizarre that Gmail scans my emails (scans not reads) for keywords to further personalize my Google experience, but equally strange that a purse I was looking at online shows up in an ad on Facebook. I’m concerned about online privacy, but equally concerned that in personalizing my web experience, I’m getting a limited one.

The whole concept of tailoring ads and searches to suit us seems the antithesis of why I love the Internet: it introduces me to new things. Perhaps this is why I enjoy Twitter so much. Via tweets I’ll read an article I’d never have come across otherwise, find a great new blog, or even a great pair of shoes. While I choose whom I follow, and there are sponsored tweets to be found, the chaos and cacophony of tweets brings the unexpected and interesting my way. And I love that. It’s the opposite of the “filter bubble” Eli Pariser warns of.

At a TED talk he gave last year, Pariser, former Executive Director of MoveOn.org and author of The Filter Bubble, explained how all of these targeted and personalized searches are giving us very narrow views of the world via the world wide web. As an example, he showed two friends who got very different Google results for the same search because of the way searches are personalized. I decided to try it myself.

I had four friends around the country Google search “hurricane sandy cleanup” and send me screenshots of the first page. I had my results and three others in about an hour. The last came about six hours later. While our results weren’t vastly different, our results were not the same. I saw different videos and sources of news highlighted. The ads were almost all the same, but I saw different videos and top news stories. Some differing political influences were obvious.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise, if I kept in mind that Google tailors searches by keeping track of what we do. I understand it, and yet, I begin to reconsider the purpose of Google when five people asking the same query get different answers.

FACT: Google is giving each of us the information it believes we want. Facebook shows us what it thinks are top stories. 

Facebook now asks us to pay $7 to promote posts that might otherwise be missed, while creating a system of targeted ads that is supposed to give us exactly what we want to buy. So, in order to be “relevant,” we must pay just as FBX users do? I’d be fine with that if Facebook didn’t claim “People should be able to use Facebook for free to establish a presence, connect with others, and share information with them… regardless of his or her level of participation or contribution.”

So, the question is, how do we change it? How do we seek some control over online privacy, reduce targeting and, as a bonus, do something about the filter bubbles?


While it’s not possible to stop ads, you can take steps to reduce the number that are targeted using personal data. And, remember, ads aren’t all bad. They introduce us to things we want and need, and they’re part of what makes it possible to make the web a free and accessible platform.

Visit the DAA Self-Regulatory Program for Online Behavioral Advertising and Network Advertising Initiative sites to learn which companies are currently customizing ads for your browser, and opt out of those whose targeted ads you don’t wish to receive.

Check out Do Not Track, and the very informative Sgrouples blog.

And always read the fine print so that you understand the choices you are making and how they work. Remember that the changes you make to one browser will only effect that browser.

Knowledge is power. How much or how little you share is up to you, but knowing how you can opt in or opt out is the ultimate way to personalize your online experience.



4 thoughts on “Facebook Exchange, Targeted Ads, and Opting to Opt Out

  1. Amma

    I find this very disturbing – so disturbing that I’ve started toning down my online presence. Social networking just isn’t what it used to be. Facebook lost me when they started charging to promote posts.

    1. alexandra Post author

      I find it disturbing, too. My greatest concern is that our desire to seek information is limited in a way most are completely unaware of. I have no issue with ads, but do believe people should have the ability to opt out of what doesn’t make them comfortable. AND YET, the only way to be comfortable is to understand what it all means. The more informed we are, some of the privacy concerns are less worrisome because the mystery and assumptions are removed.

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