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Facebook's marketing goldmine may be crock of shite

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Several times a year I receive emails congratulating me on my age from websites. It's very thoughtful of them to do this - but then it's not often they get the opportunity to market to a genuine silver surfer, like me. You see, I'm actually 112 years old. Or 103. Or 107. And several ages in-between.

Yes, I'm one of those people who, since the outset of the web, when asked for the year of my birth, simply left it at "1900".

Although that makes me the "go-to guy" for incontinence cures, I reckon it's a small price to pay. And I'm not alone, according to a survey that reaches us via the British Computer Society.

Thirty-one per cent of users of social networking services enter false information into the sites to protect their identity, according to Emedia.

(Mind you, Emedia conducted the survey using something called RapidResearch, which it describes as "a quick and snappy online survey tool that enables highly targeted snapshot canvassing of opinion from senior managers across UK industries". So given that it was online, maybe those respondents were lying, too?)

The sample size is so small (100) to render the results worthless, but if the trend is corroborated, it will have lasting significance for Facebook, and the clutch of wannabee social networking sites.

Much of the hype surrounding Facebook - and it's tipped to be the biggest tech IPO since Google - is founded on its ability to monetise those 150 million users. For if at the cold, cold heart of Web 2.0 is a data collection and warehousing exercise, then Facebook has the most valuable database outside the Googleplex. Evidently lots of marketers agree - and activity around the Facebook API is frenetic today.

But what if that information is worthless?

It depends on what you're trying to do with it. If you're selling tangibles directly - such as concert tickets or photo prints - it's like shooting fish in a barrel. For example, iLike boasts 850,000-odd users for its widget which lets you see what concerts friends are going to, then offers you the chance to buy tickets. TicketMaster is an investor to the tune of $15m, and must be one of the best investments it's made. As a retail channel, social networking sites are good, as long as the audience is there.

But if you're looking for "market intelligence", then you're going to be sorely disappointed. The web can tell us what we already know, the bleeding obvious - people get more drunk at weekends, for example, or talk about Harry Potter books more frequently when there's a new Harry Potter book out. But if you want to infer anything more sophisticated, the Hive Mind is no help at all.

It's all quite heartening, really. The more the web utopians insist that it's a truer version of ourselves - in some marketing circles, "getting" the web is considered almost as useful as growing a Third Eye - the more we make it otherwise.

Now where's my Horlicks? ®

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