The threat of machines taking jobs from fleshy humans is palpable. With artificial intelligence and machine learning starting to become a commonplace reality, the paradigm of gainful employment is shifting. Facebook wants to do its part by selling ads.
In a chat with Bloomberg, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said the company wants to help create jobs by selling ads to small- and medium-sized businesses: “Technology is certainly replacing jobs. And technology can also be used to grow jobs. It’s our responsibility to help small businesses and large businesses all around the world use technology to grow their businesses so that they can grow jobs.’’
She went on to say that selling ads will help mom-and-pop stores everywhere expand, while noting that more Facebook ad customers are moving to mobile. “What we’re seeing is more adoption of the mobile platforms. There are 70 million small businesses that are using Facebook on a monthly basis… they’re investing in mobile because that’s where people are spending their time.”
When prompted to discuss how all of this was helping economic and job growth, Sandberg said: “Our goal is to make sure businesses spend money and get a return so what matters for marketers is when they spend on marketing, it rings the cash register both online and off. We also see small businesses playing a very important role in the global economy. The majority of job creation around the world is actually small businesses, and even the most offline small business can use the power of technology.”
After telling a story of how a small furniture manufacturing business in Germany advertised on Facebook and opened five additional locations(!), Sandberg quickly transitioned to how that translated into job growth and revenue both inside and outside of Germany. It’s a feel-good story of global expansion, and while small businesses often contribute to the overall job market in ways we rarely consider, that wasn’t the kicker.
Asked for her thoughts on tech replacing jobs rather than adding sales and manufacturing positions through advertising, Sandberg had this to say:
Technology is changing the economy, technology is certainly replacing jobs, and technology can also be used to grow jobs. And it’s our responsibility to help small businesses and large businesses all around the world use technology to grow their businesses so that they can grow jobs.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Then a Robot Crushes You
Unfortunately for Sandberg, it’s not always as simple as placing some ads and growing the business five-fold. Her view is linear: place ads on mobile, people see ads, people buy stuff from you, sales increase and you have to hire people to fill those jobs.
But Facebook itself is working hard to combat that view. Messenger bots (clumsy as they are) are positioned as the customer service agent of the future, and the company is even trying to figure out how to have them negotiate terms or pricing. Once they mature to the point of being conversational and understanding context – and they will – jobs will start to slip away.
Ads also aren’t the right frame for the argument on how to create jobs. For every bootstrapped furniture maker there’s a story like Raaj Kapur Brar’s. His company, Fetopolis, once budgeted $600,000 for Facebook ads. Though Facebook disputes Brar’s claims, he says a horde of bots and fake users were liking and interacting with his ad spots – not users.
The fine-print tells us advertisers or small businesses can’t audit Facebook ads. Speaking to Business Insider, Brar said: “I asked Facebook ‘can you provide any third-party evidence besides your own server analytics?’ Because we’re losing money here right now. They said ‘no, we’ve checked our systems and no one else reported any issues.’”
Brar said the $600,000 spend wasn’t covered by his revenue. Oddly enough, Facebook claimed Brar owed them money for the ads he purchased (as much as $350,000), but never pursued legal action to recoup those funds. A skeptic might say it’s because in court, Facebook would have to provide a detailed account of how its ads work, and prove the audience was a real one.
Instead, Sandberg and company think dumping money into the black hole of advertising will help small businesses mushroom into conglomerates. She also demurred on artificial intelligence sniping employment, choosing to beat the drum of “buy ads, create jobs.”
A more thoughtful approach might have been discussing how better education can help those displaced by machines and bots find new, possibly better employment. Unfortunately, that’s not immediately monetizeable for Facebook, so it’s not on the agenda. Maybe someday.