Panoptic Sorting on the Rise as MySpace Enters Behavioral Targeting Foray

Following recent announcements by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Facebook, MySpace has announced it will begin targeting advertisements based on users profiles and behavior on their social networking platform. As explained in this NYTimes article:

The algorithms make their judgments partly on certain keywords in the profile. A member might be obvious by describing himself as a financial information enthusiast, for example. But more than likely the clues are more subtle. He might qualify for that category by listing Donald Trump as a hero, Fortune magazine as a favorite publication or “Wall Street” as a favorite movie.

The system also looks at the groups members belong to, who their friends are, their age and gender, and what ads they have responded to in the past. “Our targeting is a balance of what users say, what they do and what they say they do,” said Adam Bain, executive vice president for production and technology at Fox Interactive.

The value of trawling for user behavioral data is made clear by MySpace executives:

“We are blessed with a phenomenal amount of information about the likes, dislikes and life’s passions of our users,” said Peter Levinsohn, president of Fox Interactive Media… “We have an opportunity to provide advertisers with a completely new paradigm.”

…To the consternation of privacy advocates, who say Internet users are unaware of such activity, the social networks regard these detail-stocked profile pages as a kind of “digital gold,” as one Fox executive put it last year.

The increased interest in mining user data on social networking sites for this “digital gold” reveals a rise in what Oscar Gandy called “panoptic sorting,” whereby individuals are continually identified, assessed and classified for the purpose of coordinating and controlling their access to consumer goods and services, a process Gandy insists in inherently discriminatory. David Lyon has extending this notion beyond the consumer realm into a broader social milieu, where the notion of “social sorting” highlights the growing drive in our modern surveillance society for identification and classification.

We find examples of this kind of social sorting in MySpace’s ad strategy, which they call “hyper targeting”:

For the last two months, Fox Interactive has also experimented with the second phase of its targeting program, called “hyper targeting,” in which it further divides the 10 enthusiast categories into hundreds of subcategories. For example, sports fans are divided into subgroups like basketball, college football and skiing, while film enthusiasts are further classified by their interest in genres like comedies, dramas and independent films, and even particular actors and actresses.

Advertising messages will then be tailored based on which category I happen to fall into.

This “hyper targetings” fits neatly into both Gandy’s and Lyon’s concerns of how consumer surveillance produces discriminatory practices that “cream off some and cut off others,” as Lyons (2003, p. 2) states:

To consider surveillance as social sorting is to focus on the social and economic categories and the computer codes by which personal data is organized with a view to influencing and managing people and populations. …[I]n everyday life our life-chances are continually checked or enabled and our choices channeled using various means of surveillance. The so-called digital divide is not merely a matter of access to information. Information itself can be the means of creating divisions.

The consequences of both panoptic and social sorting, Lyons concludes, present issues of “deep discrimination…and social justice.” We must think long and hard about the consequences of this “new paradigm” in online advertising.

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