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The Ultimate Retaliation: Pranking My Roommate With Targeted Facebook Ads (2014)

Creator: Brian Swichkow

Using personal details to prank Roommate With Targeted Facebook Ads

With only $1.70, his roommate’s Facebook user name, and some careful daily-life observations, Brian Swichkhow’s revenge prank on his roommate triggered real concern about a leak in his personal information. Brian was able to create Facebook ads using his roommate’s private details and target them specifically to his roommate. The highly personal ads created an illusion for his roommate that he was under watch. Throughout the prank, Brian remained anonymous by selecting personal details known only by his roommate’s close friends. The news of the Edward Snowden controversy further convinced his roommate that he was under watch. Although Brian revealed himself in the end, and his roommate’s life was restored to peace, the target marketing technology the article presents is still very unsettling.

Audience targeting is a commonly used strategy in advertising. When a target audience is a group of people, the ads can only identify a general commonality of their lifestyles, so the audience remains relatively anonymous. However, when the target size is one person, the content becomes uncomfortably personalized in detail as if “someone, somewhere, was watching his every move.” In a later note, Brian added that although Facebook has changed to the policy to prevent targeting audiences with less than 20 people, people can still easily hack it by singling out a person with the desired trait and finding 19 others who share the opposite trait.

Another concerning part of the technology is that the author remained anonymous until he chose to reveal himself, which shows the imbalance in information transparency between the advertiser and the audience. Privacy-related technology, just like supernatural events, is spooky not only because of the phenomenon itself but much because of the lack of transparency and control in the process. Maybe if we can empower the audience with more knowledge about behind the scenes when they receive the information, the technology would appear to be less spooky.

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