How Twitter Guesses Your Interests — Sometime Accurately, Sometimes Not

Entering the sometimes bizarre world of “inferred interests”

Twitter headquarters
Why does Twitter sometimes show you seemingly mis-targeted ads?
MatthewKeys/Creative Commons

If you’ve used Twitter regularly, you’ve probably been shown advertisements for various products, events and services. Some of them might have organically matched everything else in your feed — so much so that you might not have even realized they were ads. Others, though, may have stood out for how off the mark they were, selling something you wouldn’t dream of using.

From that experience, then, you may have found yourself wondering: just how does Twitter figure out what you’re into? And why do they sometimes get it very, very wrong? 

At Recode, Emily Stewart explored the world of Twitter’s “inferred interests,” where Twitter attempts to figure out the things you like and don’t like. Stewart recalls the story of a colleague who decided to see what Twitter had listed for her. (This is something that’s easy to find out if you’re on Twitter.) Stewart’s colleague discovered an array of information which ranged from the spot-on to the off-base.

Twitter describes her as an “affluent baby boomer” and “corporate mom” with multiple kids. (She’s a 27-year-old single woman without children.) It lists dozens and dozens of car-related interests. (She doesn’t have a car — or even a driver’s license.)

What emerges from Stewart’s article is a series of observations about how Twitter uses searches to determine its users’ interests — sometimes to a very granular level — and how that affects the ads they might see when using it. 

And because most algorithms, including those that Twitter uses to serve ads, are relatively secretive, there’s only so much that can be known about this process. But even with an incomplete picture of it available, Twitter’s ad methodology offers users plenty to think about.

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