Is social media listening to us? Why mysteriously timed ads bring up that notion

In recent years, Facebook users have brought up the notion of whether the platform is listening to our conversations. After all, smartphones are everywhere these days.

The notion comes from anecdotal evidence that advertising presented to Facebook in your feed could stem from as something mundane as a conversation you had with a friend about sneakers, for example. Hours after that live interaction, your news feed could be peppered with strangely timed sponsored posts from Flight Club or Adidas.

For some, the notion of whether social media is listening to our conversations brings about the unnerving proposition of eavesdropping around the clock, and virtual assistants like Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri and Google Assistant deepens that sentiment.


However, are we giving social media a lot of information to begin with even without a conversation being uttered?

Last year, marketing firm Terra Farma Media examined the two ways that Facebook, Instagram and other platforms might be tailoring our advertising.

One looks at actual device listening, in which both Facebook and Google have "categorically denied."

It was such a point of contention that the former released a statement insisting that it is not listening to anyone's conversations. In short, Facebook stated that ads are "based on people's interests and other profile information - not what you're talking out loud about."

Facebook adds that if you are using a microphone on the social media channel, then it's only when you give it permission for use in things like recordings in the app.

Well, if it isn't listening to us, then how does it tailor to my interests?

The other side of the coin that Terra Farma mentions centers on data collection and behavior analysis, otherwise known as the algorithm.

In short, social media-related terms, algorithms measure what is being talked about, how swift it's being talked about, and if an influencer is talking about, among other levels of discussion.

In other words, your behavior online is used for Facebook advertising. For example, if you use your smartphone's web browser to look up hotels around New York City, it is almost certain that the next time you look into your Facebook feed, you'll be looking at multiple sponsored posts from hotels around the Big Apple. It's also location-based if you turned on a setting for your device to be read from where you are currently situated.

This doesn't just hit at general web browsing. If you do connect another app to Facebook, like Airbnb, you'll more than likely find an Airbnb ad with the listings you just browsed on the home-sharing site.

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Social media knows your behavior, whether you utter them out to the world or not. It also observes common interests you have with friends and the pages you already like.

Now, this shouldn't try to dispel a digital myth of smartphone and virtual assistant listening. However, it should inform social media users about data collection, all something to keep in mind when you see the next PetSmart ad on Facebook after binge-liking dog photos on Instagram.

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