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Everything You Need to Know (and Fear) About Facebook’s New Ad Platform, Atlas

Facebook logo
Facebook logo


This week, Facebook announced the latest version of its advertising initiative, a platform it has lovingly dubbed “Atlas.” Facebook has pitched it, on its own website, as a tool that “delivers people-based marketing” for clients.

That might automatically sound suspicious coming from a company known for its occasional disregard for individuals’ privacy.

So what does this fancy new money-making tool mean for us Facebookers? Below is a guide to everything you should know.

Wait, how is this different from the way Facebook has already been stalking me?
Let’s review how Facebook’s advertising platform functioned before Atlas. In short, it collects data on its 1.3 billion users to sell targeted ads that appear on its website. It does this by combining what it knows about you as a Facebook surfer and what it learns from your activities outside of Facebook via cookies it installs in your browser that follow you around as you surf the Web.

You know the old story: You look up a pair of amazing shoes you want to buy that are clearly out of your price range. Then the shoes follow you around on your favorite social networks for the rest of the week, taunting you to purchase them.

Companies like Google do this, too, but because Facebook has an absurd amount of personal intel on you, this tactic has helped it become the second-biggest ad-slinger in the world.

How is Atlas different?
Cookies don’t work as well on mobile apps, which presents a problem for advertisers, who are hungry to penetrate that increasingly popular digital space. Cookies also don’t tell advertisers what percentage of people bought something after seeing it in an online or mobile advertisement.

Atlas does both of those things.

Does that mean Atlas is hitting up brands and saying, “Yo, Alyssa bought your stuff after seeing your ad”?
Not exactly. Facebook itself knows who you are and whether you’ve clicked through an ad on its site to buy something. But when it offers this information to its clients, it doesn’t single out individuals and say, “Alyssa Bereznak bought a new thing from Anthropologie;here’s her full name, relationship history, and area of residence.”

Rather, Anthropologie will hand Facebook a list of people who bought some of its gorgeous yet prohibitively expensive rugs. Facebook then compares that list with the number of people who saw Anthropologie ads and tells the company the percentage of targeted users who actually bought those rugs.

This helps Anthropologie know how successful its investment on the platform was. It doesn’t know that you, specifically, dropped lots of bills on a rug — just how many did, versus how many saw the ad.

Oh, so it’s not much different from other targeted ads online?
Yeah, except Facebook knows you much better. So even if Google can see from your search history that you’re interested in new furniture, Facebook is probably much more in tune with what’s going on with you, based on the content of your posts (“Got a new apartment! Need to cover up some gross spots on the floor but I love it!” and other fun stuff like that).

Is there a way to opt out of Atlas?
There is! You can stop Facebook from following you around the Web by following the instructions here.

Should I be afraid or upset?
This depends on whether you’re one of those fatalistic people who has willingly surrendered a large part of her privacy in order to function in the modern digital world. I, for example, am mostly “meh” about the whole thing.

That being said, lots of smart, brand-fearing people are vigilant in their fight against advertising tactics like these. I salute you for it and wish you luck building an oasis of the Internet that’s not crawling with tracking tools. But, remember, even companies that loudly pledge to protect your data will eventually find ways to please advertisers.

Where can I find out more?
Facebook has set up a special website to inform members about Atlas. You can visit and “take a tour” of the Atlas system there.

Follow Alyssa Bereznak on Twitter or email her here.