Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why We Dislike Facebook Ads - Or, The Quest To Preserve Our Free Will

Let's face it, there is something philosophically unsettling about ads on Facebook (or any other online property in possession of interest graph data about us).  What makes those ads so appealing is exactly what makes it so offensive to click on them. Here is an illustrative example:

This morning when I was staring at some display ads on Facebook, I could hear myself think "How dare they tell me what I should be clicking on by looking at my profile and activities on the site? Am I not more than a mere formula derived from my Likes, Interests and Comments? They think they have figured me out, but I will show them [and went on to click on a photo rather than an ad]"

And therein lies the dilemma for Facebook. Their ads are only relevant to us, by definition, if they appeal to our interests. But if and when they do truly appeal to our interests, they alienate us by confronting us with the age-old philosophical problem about free will vs. determinism, i.e., the question as to whether or not we are truly in charge of our own actions or whether we are just some sophisticated automaton running a super-fancy script in the background. And when our intuitions about our own free agency get rubbed the wrong way, we react the only way we know how to react, namely by doing the exact opposite of what our manipulators want us to do. That is, we ignore the ads!

The fact of the matter is, however, that manipulation (in its most non-judgmental sense) has become the way of doing business online. All consumer Internet companies are based on running A/B tests that are geared to funnel our online behavior towards the goals of various products, applications and advertisers. And surprisingly, we have a high tolerance for much of that manipulation. We dislike the implied manipulation of ads (unless they are tied to our intentions via search engines), but welcome music recommendations made by Pandora, job recommendations made by LinkedIn or a myriad of other online services that we use on a daily basis, all of which tap into our interest graph and other behavioral data to predict what we like. So, why the discrepancy?

The only way I can make sense of our conflicting intuitions is that in certain circumstances (let's call them "benign manipulations") our sense of free will does not get violated and in others (let's call them "commercial manipulations"), it does. According to some of the leading compatibilist philosophers such as Daniel Dennett (those believing that we can have free will in a deterministic world), our ability to veto manipulations and control what our desires dictate is what gives us the sense of our free will, giving us "the kind of free will worth wanting". Therefore, we don't feel compelled to veto benign manipulations because we feel that upon reflection they are genuinely in our own interests, whereas commercial manipulations compel us to veto them because we suspect they are not truly in our interests. Those commercial manipulations invoke the image of a car salesman, except one that has also peeked inside our brain.

I don't have a prescription for what Facebook shall do with its ads to make them compatible with my sense of free will, but I am glad that I can still have my free will and browse the web.

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