Building an Electronic Commerce Website; Current Changes to Facebook’s Online Ad-Targeting Practices in the Housing and Employment Industries

Roberts, Emily, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Wayland, Kent, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Weaver, Alfred, EN-Comp Science Dept, University of Virginia

The average American interacts with electronic commerce at least once a day: whether directly purchasing something online, viewing an online advertisement, or visiting a social media site. Recent studies reveal that Americans spend twenty-four hours a week online and over two hours a day on social media sites; yet, many users do not realize how often they interact with electronic commerce nor the significance of these technologies in our modern world. My technical and STS research problems together address the current state of E-Commerce and provide more context into the field overall by covering some of its most current challenges and criticisms by answering the question: what role does modern electronic commerce technology play in society?
Within the general realm of E-Commerce, my technical research addresses a specific implementation of E-Commerce and covers the development from inception to deployment of a fully-functioning website that fulfills a market need by answering the question: how does one develop a fully-functioning E-Commerce website that efficiently connects registered nurses to patients needing bedside assistance? After researching and establishing this need in the medical market, I worked with two other students under the guidance of Professor Weaver to create a fully functioning electronic commerce web application to connect registered nurses with a variety of qualifications to those needing an at-home nurse service. Our site has similar functionalities to, which connects babysitters and nannies to families, but our website specifically connects registered nurses to patients. By building this website following all of the traditional E-Commerce steps and using common industry software tools such as Django, GitHub, Heroku, and PayPal; we gained a better understanding for the key functionalities for E-Commerce businesses and more of an appreciation for how these businesses are developed and fill a customer need while shaping and interacting with society at large.
My STS research takes a different approach to E-Commerce by investigating another major component of the field, targeted advertising practices, by answering the question: how is Facebook changing its ad-targeting practices for the housing and employment industries in response to recent evidence exposing their discriminatory tendencies, and how have these changes come into existence? Facebook actively engages with over 68% of Americans daily, each of whom inherently interacts with the company’s targeted advertisements by simply opening the application. This profitable targeted advertising initiative has accounted for 98.5% of Facebook’s total revenue last year by bringing in over $60 billion dollars for the company. However, after a 2016 ProPublica report revealed that the company allows housing advertisers to exclude certain demographics from seeing their ads, Facebook has faced five legal cases wherein civil rights groups have accused the company of allowing advertisers to illegally discriminate against historically disenfranchised groups specifically in the housing and employment industries. The discrimination present in online targeted ads is on such a scale that it affects all Americans in some capacity, and the changes that Facebook poses to make right now have the potential to completely change the course of ad-targeting practices going forward. Thus, my research reveals what specific changes Facebook suggests to make and how these changes have been shaped by various relationships between the following relevant social groups: Facebook company executives, online advertisers, the federal government, activist groups, and all Facebook site users. Overall, my research concludes that the mobilization of each actor and their varying goals and complex relationships has led to the development of changes to Facebook’s ad-targeting practices that allow all involved to meet their goals at the moment.
I believe that my overall research was very successful. I achieved everything that I planned and hoped, and this learning opportunity allowed me, and hopefully readers as well, to better understand the two major components of modern electronic commerce technologies (online websites and targeted advertising) and gain more insight into the mutual shaping of E-Commerce and American society. I answered all of my research questions to the best of my ability, and now I have not only a completed research paper but also a fully functioning E-Commerce website and technical report to show for my effort. In regards to my research, I know that the field of E-Commerce will keep evolving and changing, so any research conducted on the same topic in a few years will look very different. With that said, my only worry with my research is that, because the field is so rapidly changing, my research will not be relevant for long; however, I hope that this paper will nevertheless at least provide readers in the future with a better understanding of the state of E-Commerce in 2020 and that another researcher will pick up where I left off.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Targeted Advertising, Facebook Discrimination, E-Commerce, Electronic Commerce

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Computer Science
Technical Advisor: Alfred Weaver
STS Advisor: Kent Wayland
Technical Team Members: Jillian DeWoody, Jack Girerd

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