Facebook and Twitter don’t like to talk about how, exactly, their algorithms determine users’ interests. According to their privacy policies, both collect basic information you provide in your profile, like your birthday and gender, as well as details around your log-ins, like what devices you use and your location, and your posts and “likes.” Twitter and Facebook may also receive information from your browser cookies, what links you click, and third party apps that you’ve connected to your account. They might also be able to match additional info from their partners to you based on your phone number or email address.
Though the details of their algorithms aren’t clear, Facebook and Twitter are at least attempting to be somewhat transparent about the end result of those programs. Your Twitter and your Facebook ad settings allow you a glimpse into what social media companies (and the advertisers who pay them) think you’re into.
In looking at my Twitter interests, I couldn’t help but wonder how the algorithm determines topic categories in the first place. Some seem too broad to be helpful, while others are insanely specific. For instance, Huffington Post reporter Ariel Edwards-Levy said in a tweet that Twitter thinks she’s into “amazing,” whatever that is, and also “people are calling the New York Times following Press Secretary Sarah Sanders’ statement.” Twitter didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Some individuals, like writers or comedians, also appear to qualify as interests. Mine has picked up that I’m a fan of DeRay McKesson, Jaboukie Young-White, Jonny Sun, Jamelle Bouie and Tracy Clayton. I apparently like the latter two so much that they’re both listed twice, which seems pretty mild compared to the experience of some users:
For what it’s worth, Facebook’s read on my “interests” is even farther afield. It thinks I’m into, among other things, “pillow,” “packaging and labeling,” “flight attendant,” helicopter,” “easy,” “tough love,” and “the rings of Saturn,” as well as various TV shows, movies, albums, and stores I’ve never even heard of.
For a deeper look into what advertisers covet about you, check out your “Partner interests” on Twitter, which, the site explains, helps its partners “build audiences around shopping decisions, lifestyle, and other online and offline behaviors.” Rather than categories of interests, this list includes guesses about your income, marital status, and whether you’re likely to eat at T.G.I. Friday (I am, apparently), among other things.
Those guesses are often contradictory. For instance, Twitter has me on a list for young adults age 18-25, but also one for “Moms with big families,” and thinks I have at least one child, who is 11-15. (None of this is correct.) It also seems to think I am very responsible: I’m likely to have basically every type of insurance, with multiple companies. This strategy isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough for advertisers; if you cast a wide net, you’re liable to be right in some cases. It makes sense to put me on disparate lists in hopes that at least one correctly targets me.
In a way, it’s kind of comforting to know that Facebook and Twitter haven’t really figured out who I am based on my data. I’ll go on letting them think I’m a rich mom who’s really into golf and the 1990 film Dreams.