Robots Attack!

Back in 2005, Facebook had an “about me” section which gave me my first existential crisis. I stared at the blank section as panic about describing myself in approximately three sentences set in. After marinating in my teenage angst, I eventually settled on words that I would probably 100% disagree with today.

I don't even know what to do with one life, let alone nine of em.

Little did I know that my carefully chosen description would be fed into an algorithm to tell Facebook exactly who I am, so that (ideally) relevant advertisements could one day reach me.

Sometimes, the ads on Facebook and elsewhere through the great interwebs were completely random, but at times they were spot on: a coupon for a tent just as I’m planning my next camping trip, for chocolate anytime, any day, or even showtimes at a local theater for Harry Potter, plus a coupon for free popcorn so I could emotionally eat through Dumbledore’s death.

Dumbledore
Still not over it.

Yes, ads are getting more targeted, but all that analysis may be for naught, because half of all ad views aren’t reaching human eyes. As our culture obsessed over zombies and vampires, robots slipped right by, eating up traffic views and stealing $400 million per year from online advertisers. “If your therapist thinks you have trust issues, you might just work in online advertising,” writes Mike Shields of Adweek.

Evil robot

So who’s the mastermind controlling the army of spambots? Shields says, “Some blame media buyers for being negligent. Others point to middlemen involved in the online ad equation, the DSPs and supply-side platforms (SSPs) that look the other way.” Ultimately, ad fraud is a systemic, industry-wide problem.

Irfon Watkins, contributor to The Economist Group, goes as far as calling online advertising fundamentally broken if not specifically targeting the right people. Only half the problem is getting people to have an enjoyable, relevant, and memorable experience, and the other half is making sure that those people are real humans.

Confused? So am I. A systemwide lack of transparency means no one really knows what’s going on. But what we do know is that no one cares more about your likes and dislikes than your mother and marketing analysts, and the latter care very much about shifting your online experience from annoying to enjoyable. But in their fixation on knowing your deepest desires, they are blinded by the buy/sell structure of the industry, which is currently incentivized towards the quantity and not quality of views. This is a ripe time for brainless bots. Hide your kids, hide your wife.

 
 

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