March 3, 2013 at 1:02 PM ET
Facebook is using you, whether you know it or not. Sometimes it's obvious: you like a page, you click share, Facebook benefits. Other times, you have no clue until a friend asks you about a photo they saw that you liked. The unfortunate side effect to all of this is that it can actually make you an unbearable annoyance to your friends, and you probably don't even know it. Here's how it works, and how to stop it.
When we talk about the ways that Facebook uses your personal information, we're usually talking about why you should care about your privacy, or how Facebook tracks your activity. In this case, we're discussing how your Facebook habits are used — with or without your knowledge — to bother your friends with ads that they associate with you. It's a very different beast, but it can be stopped. Here's what you need to know.
EdgeRank: The math Facebook uses to pimp out your likes
You've probably seen an increase in posts in your news feed that say "[Your Friend] likes [Random Group]'s photo," with the full photo and text of the group's post right there, as though you liked the group yourself.
On your phone or tablet, you've likely seen "Sponsored Posts" that say "[Another Friend] likes [Random Company]" with an invitation to like that page as well. It's annoying to be sure, but you also likely know that your friend didn't choose to advertise the page to you — it's Facebook, using our habits to get likes and shares.
The logic that Facebook uses to decide what lands in your friends' feeds is called "EdgeRank," and it's purposefully obscure — after all, if everyone understood it clearly (and lots of people claim to, but don't), advertisers wouldn't have to pay to promote posts, and users would be able to easily filter their feeds and block ads they don't want to see.
EdgeRank serves two purposes: For people who operate Facebook pages and manage brands, it's the algorithm that decides whether your post gets out to as many of your fans as possible. For users, it's the likelihood you'll see something in your feed liked or shared by someone else. It's also the math that governs why your news feed refuses to stay in real chronological order, even after you set it to "most recent."
We're not talking about your own status updates, photos or anything you post to Facebook yourself — just the way you interact with other pages, groups, and people on Facebook. It's one thing if your news feed is full of baby pictures from your old high school friends — it's another thing when every post you like from a group you follow ends up in all of your friends' news feeds without you knowing or being able to control who sees it.
Facebook uses you to help pages and brands find friends and go viral
The problem: When you see a post in your news feed from a group you've never heard of, like a heartwarming photo or a campaign for a cause, you might assume it's because your friend chose to share it with their followers by clicking the "share" button. That's not the case: odds are they thought it was good, clicked Like, and moved on.
A quick way to check is to visit their profile directly: if you don't see the post there, then Facebook decided that you might like to see it too, not your friend.
This is annoying, but it's especially problematic when you click like on something that may not be work-safe, assuming that "like" is not "share," so "who'll see it, right?"
For example, one of my friends is a model: she's attractive, and her photo shoots are often artsy, but it's nothing you'd want your boss asking you about because they peeked over your shoulder at work. By "liking" her posts about her photo shoots, I run the risk of unintentionally sharing her photos with my Facebook friends, and having their bosses scold them for looking at scantily clad model pics. See the problem?
Unfortunately there's no way out of this: Facebook doesn't let you set the privacy level of something you've liked. If the original poster shared publicly, your like is public as well. Remember that if you're a fan of any Facebook groups or pages that like to keep their posts in-group or close to pocket, or it may land in a friend's news feed.
This is EdgeRank in action: it's not sinister, it's just Facebook deciding that your friends may have similar interests and may like what you like.
The downside is that it populates your news feed with photos and updates from pages you may have no interest in, and does the same to your friends. We've shown you how to clean up your own feed, but how do you avoid cluttering up everyone else's feed?
The solution: First, think before you click the Like button. There's no way to determine which likes will be posted to which friends, so before you like that photo on one of your favorite pages, assume that it could be broadcast to all of your friends. Here are some other tips:
Facebook uses your likes to sponsor brands, cluttering up your friends' feeds
The problem: You've seen the ads before: Friend A, B, and C Like [Brand], with a Like button next to it. They're right there in the middle of your news feed — sometimes there are two or three of them together in a big "sponsored" box.
It's annoying, especially when the brand in question isn't even remotely interesting to you. Save your friends the hassle, and audit the brands and companies you like on Facebook.
The solution: Unlike pages and brands that you don't need an active relationship with, and don't like new ones unless you need to. Save your friends the irritation of seeing "So-and-So Likes A Company You Couldn't Care Less About!" every time they log in to Facebook and just remove brands you don't feel like providing free advertising for.
Don't get us wrong, lots of companies offer great customer service, discounts, and other incentives to like them on Facebook (we'd be lying if we said we didn't want you to like us on Facebook too,) but let's be honest. You probably liked a bunch of companies on Facebook because you shop there and wanted to see what their Facebook page was all about, or because they were running a contest that required you Like them — not because they offer you any tangible benefit today. Alternatively:
Facebook isn't planning to stop anytime soon
Annoying your friends — by which we mean making sure that Facebook ads your friends see have your name above them (and vice versa) aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
Facebook's new Graph Search gives you a great way to find people who share interests with you, but it also gives advertisers a great way to cross-reference people's likes and interests so they can better target who should see their brand or product, and which of their friends they should use to say "See? Your friend already likes us, why don't you?"
Now, Graph Search is only limited to a small number of people right now and it respects your privacy settings. If you're smart about keeping your privacy settings where they should be, you don't have anything to worry about from Graph Search. Similarly, it's not certain that Graph Search is even open to advertisers right now, so there's no reason to get out the torches and the pitchforks.
Another example of the same philosophy was Facebook's Social Reader. Graph Search is in the future, but Social Reader is a great example of a Facebook feature that went belly up because people didn't care too much for their activity being shared automatically and without their explicit permission each time it was used.
News sites using Social Reader, like The Washington Post andThe Guardian (the latter of which has already killed their social reader app) saw tumbling numbers last year as readers ditched them en masse. Whether they left because they didn't care for every story they read being automatically shared with their friends (assuming they didn't change post visibility to "only me,") or because they just didn't like what those apps had to offer is still a matter of debate.
The bottom line: Just know what you're getting into
The truth is that Facebook is a free service to users, and it needs to make money somehow, and that money will be made using your data. The question is whether Facebook uses it or they give it to someone else to use, and how that information is used.
The moral of the story here is to be careful with the things you like, because it's not just things you share that end up in your friends' news feeds. Since you can't even go to your profile to see what's been shared on your behalf, it's impossible to tell until someone pings you to ask why you've been liking so many posts from one particular Facebook group lately, or why the only thing you seem to share these days are someone else's photos.
Of course, stay on top of your privacy settings, the post visibility of apps you use (remember: "Only Me" is your friend,) watch what you click "Share" on. Oh, and of course: Every time Facebook makes an arcane change with nebulous results, make sure to update them accordingly.