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Technology
Status Updates For Sale: How One Man’s Lube Joke Can Make Money For Facebook
February 29, 2012
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Do you have an ironic appreciation for giant tubs of lube? So much that you are willing to express it in public?

If so, you may be glad to know that some companies are prepared to pay money for statements of lube appreciation. Unfortunately, it won't necessarily be you that gets paid, and the purchasers might fail to include your original note of irony before they share your statements with the world.

That, at least, is what happened to Nick Bergus, a writer and blogger who posted what he thought was a humorous status update about lube on his Facebook page, only to see it become a sponsored story, sold by Facebook to Amazon (a company that apparently includes giant vats of lube among its merchandise), and then spread across the social network, appearing as a bona fide endorsement of Passion Natural water-based lubricant.

Bergus-FB-post.jpg

Bergus tells the story of how he became a "personal-lubricant pitchman" on his blog, starting with his surprise to see an ad on Amazon for a 55-gallon tub of lubricant. Amused, he posted it into his Facebook feed, with the jokey line, "A 55-gallon drum of lube on Amazon. For Valentine's Day. And every day. For the rest of your life."

Soon after, Bergus reports, "a friend posts a screen capture and tells me that my post has been showing up next to his news feed as a sponsored story, meaning Amazon is paying Facebook to highlight my link to a giant tub of personal lubricant."

In fact the post began showing up in all of his friends' news feeds, which is what the company's Sponsored Stories initiative is all about: Using the trust people place in the testimony of real people - i.e. regular Facebook users - and sharing their endorsements of a product. Or, as Facebook itself describes it, "Sponsored Stories are posts from your friends or Pages on Facebook that a business, organization or individual has paid to highlight so there's a better chance you'll see them. They are regular stories that a friend or Page you're connected to has shared with you."

Which means that while Facebook can make money by selling content to advertisers, it won't share that money with the creators of that content - i.e. you, the Facebook user, whose endorsement of a business could become a Sponsored Story.

But, of course, as Bergus himself relates on his blog, it's hard to get too defensive about the process: "Of course Facebook is happily selling me out to advertisers," he writes. "That's its business. That's what you sign up for when make an account."

But that doesn't means he's happy with the way his words have been used by forces beyond his control: "In the context of a sponsored story, some of the context in which it was a joke is lost, and I've started to wonder how many people now see me as the pitchman for a 55-gallon drum of lube."

Is this the future of the social media business? Facebook filed for a $5-billion initial public offering this month, meaning a lot of investors will be looking for the network to provide a serious return. It will have to turn its assets - millions of users sharing information about their personal thoughts preferences - into money somehow, and Sponsored Stories is one way to do it.

As web guru Jason Kottke has noted about Bergus's story this week, we had better "get used to this ... promoted word of mouth is how a lot of advertising will work in the future."

And while Bergus himself seems relatively unconcerned about Facebook's use of his account content, not everyone is so sanguine about the idea of internet companies selling information to advertisers.

One company facing criticism over its plans is Google, whose new, simplified privacy policy takes effect tomorrow, ushering in changes that will allow Google to merge data compiled from its entire range of products - changes that may not be noticeable to most users or be all that different from what was already standard practice, but which has many privacy groups raising concerns, especially considering that all Google users will be required to consent to the new policies.

All of it is part of what Alan Simpson, of internet advocacy group Common Sense Media, described to the Huffington Post as "a data arms race between Facebook, Google and other companies in the space."

"They're all working to gather as much data and personal information as they can and figuring out ways that they will use our data to develop a better advertising market."


Related Stories on Strombo.com:

SOCIAL MEDIA UPDATE: Tweets For Sale, Facebook Privacy, Car Crashes, And Poor, Lonely Google+

Google, Facebook And The Debate Over Internet Freedom In India

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