Facebook reveals what people really like by making 'interests' data public

Facebook reveals what people actually like by making the 'interests' data it uses for ad targeting publicly searchable.

The most popular 'interests' on Facebook reveal that users are into Justin Bieber, iPhones and crying

Facebook provides advertisers with a long, non-public, and sometimes unusual list of interests for every user based on 'information you've shared with Facebook, Pages you like or engage with, ads you click on, apps and websites you use, and information from our data providers and advertisers.' (KIMIHIRO HOSHINO/AFP/GettyImages)

Once upon a time, when Facebook was used more like a social network than an AOL-style web portal for parents, the "interests" section of your profile was relevant.

Masses users who migrated over from MySpace in 2007 simply copy-and-pasted their favourite movies, music and TV shows into this section while signing up for the site, allowing anyone to find out if they like Fall Out Boy or Soulja Boy without so much as a click.

Then, as Facebook grew and changed, so did the function of interests. Once listed prominently on profiles, the section now lies at the bottom of a user's "about" tab, where they can only search for and select their favourite things from terms already recognized by the system.

Behind the scenes, though, every Facebook user has another set interests based on "information you've shared with Facebook, Pages you like or engage with, ads you click on, apps and websites you use, and information from our data providers and advertisers."

That interest list, used to target advertisements, cannot be seen by others who view your profile – which may be a good thing as these lists are often long, surprising, and far removed from what you'd list as your interests publicly.

You've long been able view the list of keywords associated with your account by editing your ad preferences, but up until recently there was no way of knowing how many others were algorithmically-linked to terms like "hipster" and "toilet" and "public displays of affection."


That changed last week with the launch of a new Facebook tool designed to help brand pages target specific audience segments more effectively.

"Facebook made public a huge trove of data about its users' interests as part of a new tool called Audience Optimization," The Verge reported Monday. "For the first time it revealed not only the hundreds of thousands of categories into which Facebook divides its users, but also the number of people who belong to each one."

"You may have already glimpsed a few of these tags in your advertising preferences," the report continues. "But this is the closest we've come to a complete, ranked list of every interest on Facebook."

The number of items on that list, by The Verge's estimate, is 282,000 – each with its own number of audience members ranging from zero to 1,466,365,990.

You can download the entire data set from The Verge's website, but it's massive at 18.2 MB.

So, the tech outlet also compiled a list of the top 2001 things Facebook thinks its users are into, as well as a series of top ten lists grouped by category.

The latter piece shows that Justin Bieber is the most popular celebrity on Facebook with an audience size of 186,828,600. Donald Trump takes the top spot among 2016 U.S. presidential candidates with 29,184,270 users, while Apple's iPhone wins the gadget wars with a whopping 428,558,240 people interested in the device.

Further down on the list of the top 2001 terms are more obscure emotions and interests like "couch" (43,467,290 users), "mystery meat navigation" (44,713,210 users), and "Linkin Park" (72,542,560 users).


A Facebook spokesperson told The Verge that these interests are formulated algorithmically from popular articles, music, and videos being shared, as well as from other Facebook data sets.

"The sheer randomness of the list suggests that the algorithms are scraping keywords from your posts," The Verge notes. "MS-DOS, which is made up of two common letter strings, shows a bigger audience than PlayStation. Dog fighting somehow snuck in as a "sport" with an audience of 7.2 million, and arson as an "event" with 1.9 million (though both of these are likely to disappear soon, as Facebook allows you to report interests as inappropriate)."


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