Trojan Horse

Recently back from Cambodia, welcome back to the AAA, Anne Elizabeth Moore!

The great Facebook Ad Debate of November 2007 centered entirely on whether it would work—meaning, would people who did not buy certain products before alter their spending patterns now?—and whether or not it would change advertising forever—meaning, are online social advertising networks the magic elixir that will convince people to shop outside their comfort zones? The company behind the scheme, Lookery, was heralded a godsend, the answer: finally someone had discovered a way to monetize social networking!

Last week, though, Lookery hit its billionth impression some three weeks ahead of schedule. Few celebrated: No financial returns were reported. Facebook’s exponential growth—550% since 2005—has yet to be monetized after all.

After small concerns were voiced over non-issues like “privacy” and “criminality,” (can we really ask a for-profit company to respect boundaries our own government will not?) the Facebook ad programs, Beacon and Social Ads, went opt-in, allowing users to sign on as “fans” of certain goods and services. (These are usually brands, products, or in the case of the dancing Sprite can everyone was so excited about last fall, single advertising images.) Then, users navigate the site greeted only by banner ads for those goods and services that might appeal to the Facebook identity they had created, even receiving alerts when an online pal visits a site they like.

Certainly, the system better targeted ads to individual viewers, and therefore seemed more responsive to specific needs and interests. It did seem a gift of sorts. “It’s a brilliant Trojan Horse . . . a natural evolution, both advertiser-friendly and user-friendly,” one CEO told Advertising Age at the time.

But now that we know that Lookery’s great gift seems to consist only of an increase in the number of things potential consumers can mindlessly click on, we can peer inside the Trojan Horse to find . . . nothing. Not, at least for the Facebook users who signed up, providing free labor to big brands in exchange for association with the shiny corporations. Do keep in mind that this is a service users provide freely that, when called by its technical name “marketing,” nets a salary of almost $45 per hour.

Labor issues aside, the gift of monetized social networking doesn’t seem to contribute much to the stockhouse of information about marketing either, as publicly consumed goods and services popular in the real world, like the New York Times and Sprite, also appear to be popular virtually.

So this Trojan Horse isn’t all that effective. But it may still be destructive.

Those of us who track the advancement of media conglomeration and have watched it intersect with social networks weren’t surprised by Facebook Ads—or any of the other similar ad schemes developed (many by Lookery) for any of the other social networking sites. Of course new means of monetizing relationships between the many will be explored to mine profits for the few. What else could possibly be behind the recent major media interest (NewCorp with MySpace, and MSNBC here) in connecting online? Moves like this clearly target the coveted youth demographic, often so enchanted by the technology of new hang-out options and advanced peer-pressure delivery systems that they fail to heed warnings dutifully provided by teachers, librarians, and cool aunties about real-life internet predators.

It’s a Trojan Horse we saw being wheeled down the road from several miles away: for-profit companies want to place value on our friendships and our associations with their products. They want to profit from them. Without paying us for our labor.

There is a hidden surprise in the Trojan Horse analogy, though, so kindly provided by the CEO: we finally have open acknowledgment that marketers and advertisers have declared war upon us regular folk. So far our response has been to remain open and curious about whatever gifts they wheel inside our gates, but it’s coming time to stop accepting them.

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  1. Scott Rafer says:

    Hi Anne,

    I’m the guy that included your pic with “Yeah, what she said” in his slides at Push the Future in Minneapolis last July. Interestingly, I’m also co-founder/CEO of Lookery. I don’t know if you’d connected the two.

    I may be self-deluded, but I think the situation is not so black-and- white as you portray (and yes, that means I’m what’s wrong with the Democratic Party).

    We got involved with this last July because we knew a lot of very cool geeks with fun new social apps who couldn’t pay for their own servers. They were drowning in Facebook users and couldn’t pay their bills. We’ve set up a couple different programs to make it straightforward for people to keep coding and ignore the ad side if they like, and I feel more than OK about that. I’m not claiming Facebook ads are socially redeeming, but timekillers are part of the human condition.

    I agree that some of the ads we display fall into the realm of visually invasive, but where Lookery may not meet the more societally disturbing aspects of your Trojan Horse spec. A number of the social network ad folks are working on systems that take detailed profile information and really try to get in your knickers with a scarily targeted ad. We don’t and won’t. Our system has no Personally Identifying Information as the FTC calls it. We specifically avoid having enough info to to figure out who you really are.

    It isn’t because we’re angels, for better or worse. We just think that sort of thing is a money-losing proposition for a whole host of reasons. The companies that are doing the highly detailed stuff are trying to convince Madison Avenue that social network pages are worth a ton of money with careful targeting. There’s no proof that they are correct, and we believe that they are flat-out wrong. The majority of Facebook apps are fun distractions, and incredibly suboptimal places to put high-dollar ads. We’re just building a biz that runs cheaply by avoiding invasive marketing tactics, which are very costly. The only profitable approach in this arena is with minimally invasive, i.e. truly anonymous and privacy-friendly, targeting info.

    Unlike other startups I’ve done, Lookery isn’t purely First Amendment reinforcement as a commercial proposition. However, I’m pretty sure the people we’ll make squirm economically are the same people you seek to “de-normalize” culturally.


  2. Oh, Hi Scott!

    I wish ever moreso that we’d met in person now.

    Let me start by noting that I’m extremely confused by your very last comment, before “RSVP”. I’m not trying to anything anybody, although I’m impressed you imply I may be having that effect. Thank you! Mostly, FYI, I just write what I think, with this overblown sense of entitlement that I feel to do so based entirely on my love of America.

    And I guess I’d apologize for the Trojan Horse comment it If’d made it originally, but I didn’t. I did find it oddly aggressive, that’s for sure. You should feel insulted, and should hunt down that Ad Age CEO. That guy’s a jerk.

    Also, I’m not sure that you can call Facebook Social and Beacon Ads privacy-friendly, as they are still creating algorithms that target information to individuals based on their personal information; whether or not that information is kept on file for future use may be a different issue. I mean, I guess we can argue that environment is still friendly to privacy, but is it “private”? I kinda don’t think so.

    I further agree that time-wasting’s a part of the human condition, and I have no problem with it, done for any purpose, greater or not. But creating a time-wasting proposition intended to ultimately forward consumer goods, in turn done to create a profit? Hmmm. There are a lot more things worth working on.

    Which brings me, Scott, to my proposition. You seem to be implying that you aren’t in this for the money: is it not a profitable field? I’d love to hear specific numbers: what did Lookery pull in from all this Facebook business that had people so up in arms for the few short hours people are up in arms about anythng these days?

    The point is, Scott, I want you to quit Lookery. I will send you $100 to do this right now. Seriously. You seem like a smart dude, and I think the real world could use you. Let me know where to PayPal or send a check. I’m totally broke but this is completely worth the investment.


    p.s. I have no idea what’s wrong with the democratic party, but I can’t imagine you’re the worst of it. Those people are crazy.

  3. Scott,

    The AAA will match Anne’s offer and add some. If you quit Lookery, we’ll pool our money together and send over a check for $500. I know it’s not much, but it’s really just a token – for this reason, I will also make a giant, 3 foot long check to present to you. You do seem like a very smart guy and if this small incentive can encourage you to start on an endeavor for the public good, we’re happy to provide the support.


  4. Scott Rafer says:

    I’m not quitting, sorry. However, but I will try to clear a couple of things up:
    — I took the statement before the RSVP from the page “Our Mission” on this site thinking you had written it (misunderstanding the role of the AAA until after). I appreciate the AAA’s goals, generally.
    — I am also at least “not sure that you can call Facebook Social and Beacon Ads privacy-friendly.” Lookery is a completely separate company running a completely separate set of ads on parts of Facebook where Facebook has decided not to participate. They keep personal info — we don’t.
    — I’m suggesting that the traditional ad network approach to facebook won’t make money. I think ours will do OK, partially due to our anonymity spec.
    — I’m happy to match your $500 if we can think of a place to send it that will teach people things that reveal the problems of timekillers. Candidates?

  5. George Bennett says:

    Of particular interest to me here is Scott’s contention toward the characterization of Lookery as a “Trojan Horse.” Such metaphors, ingrained in contemporary consciousness as they are, do well to reinforce another notion with which Scott holds contention; that matters such as these are distinctly black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. Anne’s use of the Trojan Horse metaphor in this context, regardless of who is responsible for its origination, makes her complicit in the propagation of capitalism’s lexicon of warfare, with its targets, tactics, and battle plans. Her post gleefully heralds a long-awaited confession of the violent relationship between “regular folk” and the faceless, war-ready machinery of capitalism; a confession that can never be made by the opposition if it is to protect its innocence, and a pact upon whose reductive logic the opposition secretly relies to draw lines, pick sides, and take aim.

    Scott makes a rare attempt to transcend this mutually destructive dichotomy by suggesting that a moral alliance might exist between AAA’s acts of cultural de-normalization and his economic manipulations. Anne blithely and sardonically refuses to consider this proposition, or at least makes no effort to understand it. And despite her protestations to the contrary, Anne is blatantly trying to “something somebody.” In this case, that somebody is Scott, and that something is an effort to tempt him into quitting his job by condescendingly dangling money in front of him. Such a token, tangibly valueless and presumably meant to christen and signify his liberation, is actually, by virtue of Anne’s self-professed poverty and concern for the welfare of the “real world,” a symbol of her sacrifice, and validation of her liberation at his expense. Anne may have sent the Trojan Horse back through the gates with another inside, but a Trojan Horse inside itself resembles the Matryoshka doll; it divides, it never reveals, and it goes on forever.

  6. Oh! OK, the pre-RSVP comment’s been cleared up. My fault for not even reading the mission statement of the org I’d joined up with.

    As far as the characterization of capitalism as warfare, and the supposedly hidden nature thereof, and the sense on top of this that perhaps it is not—well, there are a lot of people in poverty who feel themselves on the wrong end of that gun. Should that seem a foreign notion, keep in mind that poverty is not a POV we come across so often, it not being the greatest of selling propositions in our evermore commercializing media. (Anybody here have a hand in that process?) But it is there, and common in circles that can’t really consider themselves on the winning side of any battle.

    I can provide a further reading list, should you prove interested. Barbara Ehrenreich is a good place to start. And despite Scott’s best efforts to transcend dichotomies, a notion of capitalism as warfare will only stop presenting a “mutually destructive dichotomy” when it stops destroying one of the parties involved.

    (And by the way, I never personally claimed poverty. Just the lack of proper resources to make Scott a decent offer. Well, we work with what we gots. Here, may I remind Scott, that’s five hundred cash dollars!!!!)

    To put it simply, I like Scott. I want him on our side. Failing that, I’d love to get an idea of what sort of profits Lookery is actually pulling in, so I can decide just how much to keep fighting him. Then failing that, I’ll settle for a humor-based mildly antagonistic relationship based on mutual appreciation. But it is my third choice.

    And now, I think I have to get back to actually writing this column, instead of commenting on it.


    p.s. If we’re going to start throwing money around, I’d suggest the Harpswell Foundation Dormitory and Leadership Center for University Women, where I was working in Cambodia. They’re starting a $1.8 million capital campaign to fund their current dormitory and build a new one, to continue providing impoverished young women from the countryside a space to live and learn leadership skills while they attend school in Phnom Penh. (Making the 32 young women I worked with effectively the first large group of educated women in the history of a country that isn’t prepared to consider women’s rights.)

  7. […] 3. ] Elsewhere: Facebook’s Trojan Horse: “For-profit companies want to place value on our friendships and our associations with their […]

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