Have we become so skeptical? Last Friday, the US Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples would have the right to marry in all US states, an historic event and a major win for gay rights activists. To help users celebrate the announcement, Facebook unveiled a new option, enabling users to overlay their profile images with the rainbow flag, a symbol for the Pride movement. The option has been taken up by millions of users - as you would no doubt be aware, log onto Facebook or Facebook Messenger and your feeds will be awash with multi-colored images beaming back at you.
This was a good move by Facebook, a thoughtful gesture that enables users to show their support for the decision in a simple, subtle way. But over the weekend, several commentators noted that Facebook is probably tracking the implementation of this feature. Why, you ask? Because that's what Facebook does - possibly even more than a social network these days, Facebook is a data company, they track everything every user does with a view to building complex character profiles and audience segmentation analytics to help better target advertising. And it makes perfect sense that they do this - but should we really view everything Facebook does with such suspicious eyes?
A Study of Human Rights
Back in 2013, when the US Supreme Court began debating the future of same-sex marriage, The Human Rights Campaign urged Facebook users to change their profile image to the red and pink equal symbol to show their support for marriage equity. Three million people did, and Facebook subsequently went on to study how this implementation played out, most notably by who and where. Facebook data scientists went on to publish a study based on this, outlining the "complex diffusion characteristics congruent with threshold models". The study looked at the role the actions of friends played in the process ("most users observed several of their friends changing their profile picture before taking the action themselves"), demographic characteristics and general propensity of the individual to change their profile image. The research concluded that the "probability of adoption depends on both the number of friends and the susceptibility of the individual"
Estimated increases in profile changes for each US county after HRC call for profile change
In more basic terms, the researchers were able to model the likely demographic and relationship characteristics that would increase the likelihood of a person changing their profile image in support of this cause. In themselves, such findings means little - the report doesn't necessarily show more people support a certain cause so much as they want to be seen supporting a cause, hence the influence of their group of friends on their decision. This has no doubt also played a part in the spread of latest profile photo feature, with many people changing their profile not necessarily in support, but due to peer influence. And of course, the significance of peer influence in such cases isn't a revelation either, but what many people fail to see in such analysis is the wider picture.
The Data Mine
Facebook has access to more personal data than any single entity in history. Sure, Google has search data, which is also of significant value in a profiling sense, but Facebook has access to personal preferences, more intimate details that tell the story of who we are. Indeed, researchers have found that building psychological profiles based on Facebook data can be more accurate than friends, family, even partners. Such findings are possible not through the attribution of a single data point, but through many, intricate layers of activity undertaken across the social network. In this sense, many fail to see the potential implications of Facebook data on such a minor detail - "what, so Facebook now knows I support marriage equity, so I'll get targeted with ads based on that?" While that's possibly true, it's more likely that Facebook will apply such data on a wider scale in order to categorize audiences into more specific brackets. In this case, it's likely not your personal stance that would be the standout factor, but susceptibility that's more likely to be taken into account.
Consider this - what if you were able to correlate that people who like 'The X-Files', 'Game of Thrones', 'Swimming' and 'Nutrition' who also changed their profile image with the rainbow filter were significantly more likely to be convinced by peer pressure than other groups? I'm not saying this is the case, this is purely hypothetical, but this is an example how Facebook categorizes and matches data to come out with more advanced audience segmentation models - and it's not just five data points they look at, it's hundreds, even thousands of actions they can use to find direct and causal relationships between users and their preferences. For the aforementioned Facebook psychological study, where they found Facebook revealed a more psychologically accurate profile of a person than friends or family, 150 Likes was the magic number at which they could outsmart family members. At 300 likes, the system bested partners on knowledge of that user. When considering how Facebook data matching works, it's not just one action that they're taking into account, but every action you undertake on platform (even some off-platform).
Every Step You Take...
So that being the case, does it really matter if Facebook is tracking people who change their profile image? Nah, they probably already know all about you already, you've probably already been categorized into one of the many ad targeting brackets based on your historic behaviors and personal particulars. The more data we enter every day, the more Facebook builds its data banks, and with 936 million daily active users, that's a lot of insights to sift through and build upon. In the scheme of things, using a filter on your profile image is only one part of a much bigger puzzle that Facebook's constructing - if you're concerned about how Facebook might be tracking your data, there's a much wider scope than this at play. But is Facebook tracking you based on that action? Yes. As it is on every action. As it is with every user. Facebook is as much in the data business as anything else, and the more it can get the better.
So, you know, change your profile image if you want. As long as you're doing it for the right reasons.