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What Facebook Knows and Doesn’t Know
InfoCommerce Group -- Specialized Business Information Publishing Expert InfoCommerce Group -- Specialized Business Information Publishing Expert
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Philadelphia , PA
Friday, January 31, 2020


Privacy concerns have been in the forefront of the news lately, and no article discussing privacy is complete without mentioning Facebook. That’s because Facebook is considered to be the all-knowing machine that’s tirelessly collecting data about us and turning it into insights that can be used to better market things to us with extreme precision. Certainly Facebook isn’t the only online juggernaut with this strategy and sophisticated data collection capabilities, but in many ways it’s the poster child for our collective concerns and anxieties.

I joined Facebook in 2007. At the time, it was becoming the next big thing, and I wanted to see what it was all about. After some initial excitement, I noticed my usage dropping as the years went by. My usage massively dropped in 2019 when I somehow changed my default language settings to German and I didn’t feel any real urgency to figure out how to undo it, all this to say I am certainly not a typical Facebook user.

While not a high intensity Facebook user, I am a high intensity data nerd, so when I read an article that explained how to peek under the hood to see in detail what Facebook knows about you, and what it has learned about me from third parties, I of course could not resist. If your interest is equally high, start your journey here: https://www.facebook.com/off_facebook_activity/

I clicked all the options so that I could see everything Facebook knew about me. While not a heavy user, I was a long-term user, and I imagined Facebook had likely learned a lot about me in 13 years. In due course, Facebook presented me with a downloadable Zip file that contained a number of folders.

The folder “Ads and Businesses” turned out to be the money folder. This is where I learned my personal interests as divined by Facebook – all individual categories that can be selected by marketers. Here are some highlights of my interests:

  • Cast iron (who doesn’t love cast iron?)

  • Scratching (what can I say?)

  • Tesla (Facebook helpfully clarified that my interest was not in the car, but rather the band … the band?)

  • Oysters (I don’t eat them)

  • Skiing (I don’t ski)

  • Star Trek (absolutely true – when I was about 14 years old)

 There were about 50 interest categories in all; not all wrong, but overall far from an accurate picture. What I infer by looking at these interest categories is that they are keywords crudely extracted from various ads I had clicked on over the years. I say “crudely” because these interest tags don’t represent an organized taxonomy; there is no hierarchy, and there is only a lackluster attempt to disambiguate. For example, one of my interests is “online.” Without any context, this is useless information. And if Facebook assesses the recency of my interests, or the intensity of my interest (how many times, for example, did I look at things relating to cast iron?), it is not sharing these data with its users.

If Facebook underwhelmed me with its insights into my interests, the listing of “Advertisers who uploaded a contact list with my information” totally confused me. I was presented with a list of literally hundreds of businesses that ostensibly had my contact information and had tried to match it to my Facebook data. What I saw on this list were probably close to a hundred local car dealerships from all over the country, followed by almost as many local real estate agencies. I feel certain, for example, that I have never visited the website of, much less interacted with, International Honda of Sheboygan, WI. But this car dealership – reportedly – has my contact information and is matching it to Facebook.

There are a few possible explanations for this. The one I find most likely is that in the case of automobiles, some unscrupulous middlemen are selling the same file of “leads” to unsuspecting car dealers nationwide, and then encouraging them all to individually match to Facebook to run up their fees. It could also be inexperienced or bad marketers or marketing agencies. Some free advice to Toledo Edison, Maybelline, The Property Girls of Michigan, Bank Midwest and Choctaw Casinos and Resorts – take a look at your list sources and maybe even your marketing strategies, because something seems broken.

Looking at your own Facebook data gives you a rare opportunity to see what’s going on behind the curtain. Facebook’s secret sauce really doesn’t appear to be its technology. Grabbing keywords from ads I have clicked is utterly banal. Offering marketers hundreds of thousands of interest tags does in fact allows for extreme microtargeting, but in the sloppiest, laziest possible way. Capturing all my ad clicks is useful and valuable, but hardly cutting edge. What appears to make Facebook so valuable seems not to be the data it has collected, but the fact it has collected data on a hitherto unknown scale. Knowing that I have an interest in flax (yes, this is really one of my reputed interests!) even if true is pretty useless until you get enough scale to identify thousands of people interested in flax, at which point this obscure data point suddenly acquires monetary value.

What my Facebook  data suggest is that while it may not be good enough to deliver the precision and accuracy many marketers have bought into, what it has done is create “good enough” data at extreme scale. And that is proving to be even better than good enough. 


News Media Interview Contact
Name: Russell Perkins
Group: InfoCommerce Report
Dateline: , United States
Direct Phone: 610.649.1200, ext. 2
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