There is a famous question that Dallas Smythe, a Canadian political economist of communication, asked: What do media make?
He was thinking particularly of commercial, advertiser-funded media like television. What does a commercial television station make? The first answer that might spring to mind is ‘television programs’ – news, dramas, reality TV. OK, sure, people go to work at TV stations and make this content.
But, Smythe suggests, think again. The ‘shows’ you see are on the TV screen are not really the product. He says the real answer to the question ‘what do media make?’ is ‘audiences’.
The ‘product’ being bought and sold is not television shows, it is audience attention, your attention.
The money that flows into commercial media organisations like television, newspapers, and now social media platforms comes from advertisers. Those advertisers are purchasing the attention, or in the industry terminology ‘eyeballs’, of audience members. To be profitable a commercial media business needs to produce the kinds of audience attention that advertisers want to buy. Media content like commercial television is free, social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram are free. What is being sold is your attention as a user. So the industry phrase goes: ‘if you are not paying for it, you are the product’.
Smythe suggested then that if audience attention was being bought and sold, then audience members were ‘labourers’ in the media system. He suggested that in watching television, or now scrolling through the feeds of social media, we are doing the work of watching. The work of watching involves the act of paying attention: most importantly, watching advertisements.
When audiences watch advertisements they gain knowledge about, form desires for, and learn to classify brands, products and services. Audience members learn how to incorporate brands and products into their identities and lifestyles. And, they go and buy them.
When we buy the products we see advertised in the media, we are effectively funding the media. When you buy a can of Coke, part of the money you pay flows back into the media system in the form of advertising revenue, which in turn funds the media content you consume and the platforms that you use. In the era of social media platforms, audiences also undertake the work of being watched. This work takes two forms: user generated content and user generated data.
Users generate content when they translate their lives into media content that others consume. When audiences participate on reality and lifestyle TV, upload photos to social media, comment on news stories and so on they undertake the productive activity of both producing and circulating media content. Their lives and social world become an integral part of the content they watch.
Users generate data where they submit to forms of monitoring and surveillance. As audiences watch, scroll, and tap on social media platform they produce data about their interest, preferences, practices, moods and movements. This data is used to produce and sell a much more refined audience commodity to advertisers. Audiences also generate content by judging and promoting content, products, services and experiences.
With the broadcast media of the twentieth century like television advertisers could only buy large audiences that met broad demographic criteria. This meant they paid for a lot of wasted eyeballs. On social media platforms, advertisers can purchase the specific audiences members they want, including in the specific times and places they want to reach them. If you have a Facebook account, then the whole time you have been using it Facebook has been translating all your actions into data that it uses to create a set of ‘preferences’ it attaches to you.
Think about these preferences like this. These are the work of being watched. You have always had interests and preferences, but when you start expressing them on Facebook they acquire a value. You are doing the work of converting your preferences into data that Facebook can use to sell your attention to advertisers. The preferences that Facebook creates for you are then used to shape the kind of promoted posts or advertisements you are shown in your News Feeds.
Your Facebook Ad Preferences
Facebook has a function that shows you how ads are delivered to you based on your preferences. Buzzfeed has a useful explainer on how to find them called ‘Here’s how to find out what Facebook thinks you like’.
Let’s go through it. Go back to the menu of options, in the top right of the browser or bottom left of the app. Click settings. On the app you need to hit ‘account settings’.
Then, select ‘adverts’. You’ll see up the top there is a section called ‘your interests’. This contains all the ‘preferences’ that Facebook has assigned you, and allows advertisers to target you based on. You’ll get a list of stuff that Facebook thinks you like, and tells advertisers that you like.
I have 65 food and drinks, 43 lifestyle and culture, 46 news and entertainment interests and so on. Have a look at yours and see if you can figure out what Facebook associates that interest with you.
If I drop down my 65 food and drink interests what do I see?
Some of them are general: beer, wine, coffee. Others are specific: scotch whiskey, and a specific whiskey - Laphoraig.
If you hover your mouse or hold your finger over the preference Facebook will tell you why they associate this preference with you. If I hover over the coffee it says ‘you have this preference because we think that it may be relevant based on what you do on Facebook or pages you’ve liked or clicked’.
That’s true. I like some of my local cafes on Facebook. But it is also incredibly vague. And in that sense, basically misleading.
Firstly, there would be specific pages or clicks that made Facebook make this judgment – why not tell me?
Secondly, I guess there would also be a relative strength value assigned to this preference. So, I’m sure Facebook would determine how much I liked coffee compared to others based on how many likes, clicks, or times I mention coffee in posts or messages.
It is right, I do like coffee. But, Facebook are not really telling me why they know it is right.
You'll see there is a little ‘x’ in the corner of each interest on the browser, or the three dots in the bottom right on the app were you can remove the interest. Basically, tell Facebook they are wrong – this is not a preference of yours. This is kind of amusing. Facebook present this as giving users ‘control’ over ads they see. And, the public argument Facebook, other platforms and advertisers make about targeted advertising is that its better for consumers because you see ads you want to see, and that are relevant to you.
But think about that. It would be a very peculiar kind of user who takes the time to edit their Facebook ad preferences to make sure that they see the most relevant ads possible on the platform. You’ll see that Facebook explain to you on this page that if you remove all your preferences it does not mean you’ll see less advertisements, it means you’ll see less relevant advertisements.
Actually, that's got me curious.
So, I’m gonna go through and remove all my preferences except alcohol and coffee and see what happens. It is an irritating thing to do because you have to unclick every preference individually, for me about 400 preferences. As I go through them – some are kinda peculiar. Facebook says they think I’m a ‘late technology adopter’ based on what I do on Facebook, and they also know that I’m a Windows user. OK, I am. But it prompts the question, how would that piece of information be used by an advertiser?
Others, that I’m interested in ‘family based households’ and ‘fermentation based food processing’. I think that means I like yoghurt, pro-biotics and beer. Huh?
So, will this mean I get heaps of alcohol and coffee ads? Random ads? That Facebook will generate me new preferences?
OK, so I deleted a bunch of them. I thought I could undo them. You can’t. Just so you know.
So, I’ve gone from about 500 preferences to about 50 – and they are all related to coffee and alcohol.
A year later...
I checked back a year later and, unsurprisingly, Facebook just went about reassembling all my preferences. The lesson here, if you keep using Facebook, it keeps learning about you.
There is no way to use Facebook without doing the work of being watched.
Facebook’s wager is that we want targeted ads. They annoy us less. Their data tells them that’s right too. And, if I look at my ads I’ve clicked on in my archive data, well, it is true, I do click on the ads – something like 1 ad every couple of days that I find relevant and click on. Again though, this is kind of a pre-school version of what’s going on. In that, this kind of ad-targeting is based simply your specifically expressed preferences. It doesn’t take account of more subtle contextual factors like where you are, or what a friend is doing, or places you go.
Notice too that the kind of information these preferences are based on: pages you clicked, ads you clicked, are not included in your Facebook archive that you can download. You might begin to notice now how your ad preferences inform the way your news feed is shaped. I realise that I see a lot of promoted posts relating to coffee on a Saturday morning. Nearly every Saturday I see a post like this from my local café. They are doing their targeting I’d say. The dude who runs it looks like he’s pretty on it: that wouldn’t surprise me.
The platform is telling us it has data about our activities but it doesn’t make that available to us to download. This little experiment tells us something about the work of being watched. Our everyday use of Facebook might be enjoyable to us, but it also doubles as work in that it creates valuable data that enables Facebook’s advertising model to function. This is the work of being watched, of allowing the platform to turn our everyday activity into data.