Nick Bergus found himself featured in the Business Section of the New York Times this weekend after he posted a link on Facebook to something he found "irresistibly funny" - a 55-gallon barrel of personal lubricant.
But it wasn't really a funny story. The Times was highlighting the dilemma of Facebook users who find themselves unwittingly featured in mini ad campaigns directed at their friends.
Nick was one such star, advertising Amazon in a "sponsored story."
It all started on Valentine's Day. Nick's link to the lubricant ad he found on Amazon.com included the jocular comment : “For Valentine’s Day. And every day. For the rest of your life.”
Then something unexpected happened. Within days, said the Times, his friends of started seeing his post among the ads on Facebook pages, "with his name and smiling mug shot".
Facebook algorithms had "liked" Nick's joke and turned it into into an Amazon ad delivered to his friends.
Many companies are now paying Facebook to generate these automated ads, said the Times, when a user clicks to “like” their brands. Users may not know it - but they agreed to this in the site’s 4,000-word terms of service.
The Times said, "With heightened pressure to step up profits and live up to the promise of its gigantic public offering, Facebook is increasingly banking on this approach to generate more ad revenue. "
But, says the paper, many users do not realise that the links and “likes” they post on Facebook can be used for marketing purposes. And Facebook has already agreed in principle to settle out of court a class-action lawsuit over the practice in California.
Bergus, 32, a multimedia producer in Iowa City, wrote on his blog, www.nbergus.com, "I’m partially amused that Amazon is paying for this, but I’m also sorta annoyed. Of course Facebook is happily selling me out to advertisers. That’s its business. That’s what you sign up for .
"But 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."
Facebook brought in $1 billion in revenue in the first quarter, mostly from ads. The social network has not said how much comes from sponsored stories.
Would-be advertisers are told consumers are 50 percent more likely to recall an ad if it comes with a plug from a Facebook friend.
And as sponsored stories are "just stories from the news feed, you cannot opt out of them,” Facebook says.
A company spokesman told the Times users could choose not to click the “like” button next to something if they don’t want to be associated with it.