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Friday, December 05, 2014

Unsettling Facebook Algorithm Redefines the Meaning of a True Friend

Credit: someecards.com
Facebook’s “people you may know” feature is alternatingly annoying and creepy.

The SOTFs (Same Old Tired Faces) dance across my screen daily, urging me to send “friend requests” to people with whom I have little in common, have never heard of or, in some cases, have made a point of not engaging.

Yes, I know “Frank” and I have 59 mutual friends, so Facebook figures we must know each other. But we don’t. Never met him in person or online. As far as I can tell, we’ve never even commented on the same posts. Not friending Frank.

“Gigi” and I have 20 mutual friends. I’ve known her casually for 15 years or so and we’ve always been friendly. She’s a person I could run into and have a quick, pleasant chat but we’ve never made lunch dates, exchanged birthday cards or dished over the phone. Zuckerberg is dying for us to become Facebook friends. But if Gigi keeps popping up on my “people you may know” list, I’d guess I’m popping on hers, as well. So why force the issue? She can friend me. Or not.

Credit: Paramount Pictures
Unfriended in the 1970s
The one that really gets me is “Noelle.” She and I have more than 30 mutual friends, so naturally the matchmakers at HQ up in Menlo Park want to throw us together. That would be quite a reconciliation because Noelle made 6th grade miserable for me. Friends one day, enemies the next. Her emotional bullying crushed my 11-year-old spirit and confidence and sent me packing to another school for junior high. Obviously I got over Noelle’s petty brattiness years ago, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get a slight twinge of PTSD when her mug floats across my screen. She looks pretty. And happy. I hope she is and I suspect she’s a lot nicer now. I’m here if she wants to extend the olive branch but that’s up to her. And I’m not holding my breath.

How do they know I know?
Here’s what’s really got me freaked out. That friend algorithm has generated three recommendations lately that have startled me. It was like seeing ghosts. These were not the usual suspects. In each case, we have zero mutual friends on Facebook or even in real life. We’re not members of any groups or organizations together, and I knew each of them only briefly in the past.

Credit: Wall Street OTC
One is a former neighbor who managed an apartment building we lived in when we first moved to LA. Does Facebook know we lived across the courtyard from “Libby?” Does it know I texted Happy Birthday to her this past October?

“Ingrid” tutored my daughter for a couple of months nearly five years ago. Haven’t seen or heard from her since, although a quick check revealed her phone number is still in my contact list.

“Abby” is a family therapist—a good one. But I was flabbergasted when her face appeared. I get a sick feeling trying to figure out how it occurs to Facebook that we know each other. It feels like an invasion of privacy and has me anxiously contemplating how much personal data is wafting through cyberspace.

Credit: KU Alumni Association
Mad Men
Facebook occasionally suggests celebrity friends to me—a byproduct of living in Tinseltown. Today’s featured celebs are Max Gail (Barney Miller) and Thaao Penghlis (Days of Our Lives). But unless I’ve actually met them at an event or through mutual acquaintances, I don’t jump on those star-studded friend suggestions. I may pounce, however, if Facebook ever urges me to befriend Jon Hamm. That would actually make more sense than most of the would-be friends posited to me. He lives in LA, which makes us neighbors; we’re both alums of the University of Missouri, and we actually do have one mutual friend.