Facebook, with its advertising announcement, has just turned your friendly social networking neighbourhood into one big Tupperware party. Tupperware, the maker of ever convenient plastic containers, became marketing history by enlisting the suburban American 1950's housewife as a sales force. Invited by your neighbour to shoot the breeze, she would whip out her line of Tupperware containers and be rewarded for the number she sold to you.
This is the Facebook version. When you're doing something on the Web that you'd like your friends to know about, you press the "publish to my profile" button. This then shows up on all your friends' facebook home pages, the place where they keep track of the background coming and going of all those cyber-chums. If what you flag is somehow related to a comercial opportunity, Facebook's clever advertising data miners will figure it out and put an ad next to what you've just done.
So, say I post to my profile that I have just commented on an article by Sydney Blumenthal. The Facebook ad machine whirrs away and serves an advertisement from Princeton University Press for his latest book. Facebook says this is just what it wants: "Ads will be getting more relevant and more interesting to you."
The ads will also be brought to you by your friends, just as in the Tupperware party. So now, whenever I report something expressive on FB, I need to think whether I want to become a bill-board carrier. And when I check my feed and see others' expressive behaviour, I have to ask what was intention and what was accident in what they reported. This, again, is part of the deep embedding of advertising in everyday life.
One does wonder, given the profound simplicity of what a social networking site does, why this application can't be compellingly provided in a not-for-profit environment. At least then we might keep the spheres of commerce and of friendship apart for a little longer.