Nyu Ad Observerlapowskyprotocol: The recent decision by Facebook to shut down the Ad Observer account.
Facebook’s decision to crack down on NYU’s Ad Observer highlights the increasingly fraught dynamic between tech companies and academics.
By any measure, it was a monumental achievement for NYU’s Ad Observer. The account, which operated out of the university’s library in Brooklyn Heights, amassed over 10 million followers and published detailed data about the advertisers it was tracking. Its founders even won an award from the Association of National Advertisers in 2013.
But the account’s success was also its downfall. The Ad Observer had garnered a reputation as a meticulously curated, no-frills, academic analysis of Facebook’s advertisers. But as it grew, it began to look too much like a real ad agency — and so Facebook suspended its account on Wednesday, according to The Verge .
The move raises new questions about the growing rift between tech and academia over how to study Silicon Valley. But in this case, the decision also reflects a bigger issue: the increasingly blurred line between academia and Silicon Valley.
“The likely diagnosis is Facebook was looking at NYU Ad Observer as a business entity rather than an academic institution,” said Michael Eisen, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). “That’s totally understandable; it’s very similar to all other companies.”
The Ad Observer headquarters at NYU. Image: NYU
Facebook has been criticized in recent years for its lack of transparency with advertisers. Until last year, the company ran a product called Partner Categories, which allowed companies to target ads based on non-users’ activity. It also came under fire for allowing Cambridge Analytica to access user data without their consent. In 2017, it was revealed that Facebook had paid users $20 per month in order to track their phones and web activity — an invaluable trove of information for advertisers.
The Ad Observer likely violated the company’s Terms of Service, which require that users run an authentic account, Eisen said. But a spokesperson for Facebook said that the company has nothing against academics, noting that several former employees have gone on to work in academia.
“We have a long history of working with academic researchers and institutions across the world,” a Facebook spokesperson told Mashable. “This includes our relationship with NYU, and any questions about their account should be directed to them.