Blog Post

We're Only Friends Because of Facebook: Sorting Algorithms & Social Manipulation

For the purpose of this post, I will be focusing on my social networks within Facebook alone, as focusing on all of the social media platforms in which I participate would take up more space than anyone would want to read.

I have 834 friends on Facebook.  What this means, other than the fact that I probably need to go through them and unfriend those who I don't even know anymore, is that my News Feed is regularly updated.  If I refresh my browser or my phone app, I will likely see many new posts.  What's interesting about this thought is the fact that I don't see every post by every friend.  Facebook's algorithms attempt to "perfect" my News Feed by only showing me posts that it thinks I would be interested in.  So, instead of seeing a very recent post by Distant High School Acquaintance, I will instead see a three-day-old post from Close College Friend, because I am more likely to interact with and therefore theoretically enjoy a post from my newer friends than people who Facebook assumes I probably don't really care much about anymore.

The fact that Facebook's algorithms do this can potentially have a strong impact on the type and strength of connections I have with my social networks there.  If I only see posts that Facebook thinks I'd be interested in, then I can only interact with those posts, and therefore only develop those social connections.  Further, the same is happening to everyone else - only the people that see my posts can interact with them.

I see this impact in several ways when I use Facebook. One of these is that the same general group of people often like my statuses at a higher rate than other social groups.  For example, on a recent cover photo update, almost every single interaction is from someone I know since I got to college - very few high school friends, or people I know from other random events, liked the photo.  Perhaps this means that they just didn't care about the photo update, which would of course make sense.  But perhaps it also reflects the fact that Facebook assumed they wouldn't care, and never gave them the chance to see it.  

Another example of this is that I never see any posts by my ex-boyfriend.  We were at one point “In a Relationship” on Facebook, and now no longer are.  We’re actually still friends in real life, and regularly talk to one another.  However, Facebook automatically assumes that I don’t want to see anything from him, and so I have to consciously go to his profile to see any updates, putting me at a disadvantage when compared to his other friends who can see anything he posts without putting in any extra effort. 

Think about the potential consequences of this kind of sorting and reorganizing.  Maybe someone with a new love interest is disappointed that he never saw her photo, but maybe he never saw it in the first place because since they haven't interacted often in the past, Facebook assumed he wouldn't want to see it.  Maybe someone was offended that I didn’t mention their new work promotion when I saw them in real life, because I never saw the update on my Facebook. 

One initial issue with this idea of algorithmic network sorting is that it is based on my past interactions and other assumptions made about me based on biographical and other information.  Any collection of assumptions and online actions will ultimately fall short of reflecting who I am as an actual person.  Online, we are all just images of people, instead of actual people.  I get to pick and choose what things to post, what images I’m tagged in, how I’m perceived.  Even if I do my best to accurately reflect who I am, any representation of me that I get to create myself will be inherently biased and inaccurate.  Facebook is therefore basing their algorithms on an image of me that isn’t even real, and since I have no control over these algorithms, that false image is perpetuated. My past interactions, further, don’t reflect who I currently am as a person.  What if I decided that I wanted to have more contact with my high school friends again?  I could easily contact them directly, but how would my social network update to reflect my new preferences?

Another problem with this algorithm paradigm is that I have little to no control over these algorithms that have the potential to heavily influence my real relationships with the people behind these profiles.  There’s nothing I can do to 1) immediately alter the algorithms to include or exclude some thing or set of things or 2) even see the algorithms in the first place.  And since all of my online interactions are influenced by these algorithms, I’m forced to continue feeding in to their false loop.  I only like pictures posted by my college friends because they’re all I see, so Facebook continues to believe that I only care about pictures posted by my college friends. 

It’s also important to think about posts that are political or based on social issues.  It’s easy to imagine that I probably interact more (like, love, etc.) with posts with which I agree.  For the most part, I’ll ignore and scroll past political or social issue posts that I fundamentally disagree with.  Over time, Facebook’s algorithms will start removing those posts from my News Feed.  Eventually, all I’ll see are things that I agree with, essentially silencing the opinions of those different from me and isolating me within a comfortable box that agrees with me on everything.  It might make me happier when I’m using Facebook, sure, but the potential impact of allowing everyone to only be surrounded by things they agree with is huge and negative.  I want to be challenged; I want to see what my friends are thinking, even if I don’t agree. All of that is part of having relationships, being a citizen of the world, participating in a network of any kind.

It might seem ridiculous to put such an emphasis on the impact of any one social networking website, and I can certainly understand the response of many who might say “just talk to these people, then, if you’re so worried about it” or even “just stop using it then”.  But the problem with this response is that it ignores the responsibility of Facebook, both ethically and even just logically, to provide equal access to each of the friends I choose to have on their website.  Facebook might have the legal right to influence and change my relationships with people’s profiles (and therefore also the real people behind them), but their ethical right to do so is more controversial.  When I sign into my Facebook, I expect to interact with all of my friends in at least some capacity, not just some of them.  Further, Facebook is in many ways non-optional now.  All of my internships have had professional Facebook pages where HR representatives sent out information; many of my classes have study group pages on Facebook; my friends even send out party invitations there.  If I refused to use Facebook because I recognized and disagreed with its methods of sorting, I would miss out on the valuable connection opportunities it still provides.

When we think about our social networks, particularly in relation to social networking sites, we need to consider the impact that those sites have on our relationships, and not just the way we affect them ourselves.  Facebook alone has a very powerful way to manipulate my social networks in whatever way it deems appropriate, from limiting my interactions with some people to include solely non-political posts to completely eliminating my connections with others.  It would be hard to imagine and quantify how this has impacted my real-world relationships. 

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