Settle in deeper into your arm chair. Cosy up closer to your friend by the campfire and hold hands. Make sure your flashlight doesn’t run out of battery under the blanket. If you only get spooked by non-fiction, you might not get a jump out of this blog post. After all, the scenarios presented here are completely made up…ish?
Facebook and all those weird algorithms
It’s quite safe to say users can’t really know for a fact what a company will end up using the data it collects. Regarding advertising, you might have a reasonable idea that the data will be related to your interests and what kind of person you are categorized as. No creepily specific data modelling seems to go into that. But what about things outside of advertising? What’s up with all the algorithms Facebook uses to determine who and what shows up on your newsfeed, or which 20 friends out of hundreds are shown as online in the chat bar?
We know Facebook collects all kinds of data about us and our social connections. So far everything seems to be quite fine. The people you chat to, and engage with the most will probably be labelled your inner circle, and you won’t be surprised to see them pop up in your feeds. But then there are some things that make you wonder why is that person showing up there? Here is a list of some creepy things Facebook probably could, but is probably not doing.
Disclosure notice: this article is speculative and meant to serve as a thought exercise for entertainment reasons. I have no reason to claim this is what Facebook does.
“Heyyyyy, you know this person, right? How about a friend request? ;)”
How does Facebook decide who shows up in suggested friends? Maybe it’s kind of random based on mutual friends of mutual friends. Or maybe…
Jane checks her phone while standing in line for the bathroom at Jungle, a popular night club. The notifications indicate that the group chat is lit. She opens WhatsApp, an app now owned by Facebook. WhatsApp updates her status to online, also logging her coordinates – coordinates that match those of the address Jungle has on its Facebook page. The time is 1:20 a.m. Jane is obviously out partying. Not that Facebook is making any note of this…
John just finishes sending a WhatsApp message as he walks out of the men’s room. Facebook probably didn’t note he was also out partying. John and Jane lock eyes, there is an instant connection. They both sense something special about each other. John walks up to Jane, introduces himself and they hit it off. They end the night at Jane’s place.
In the morning, John opens WhatsApp to ask his friend for a ride home. Jane checks a notification she had on Instagram, an app now owned by Facebook. John’s status is updated to online on WhatsApp, Jane’s notification is marked read. Facebook probably didn’t note that the location is the same as where Jane usually spends her nights, and from where she commutes back and forth to a workplace location. Yeah, Facebook definitely doesn’t determine that they are both at Jane’s home that morning after a night out at Jungle.
It’s a bit awkward that morning. Jane and John both had fun, but it’s early, they are tired and still pretty much strangers. John leaves without them exchanging contact information. After making a cup of coffee, Jane opens her laptop. She opens Facebook and decides to look up John. Before she can point the mouse to the search box, Facebook has a suggestion for her. “People you might know.” John stares intently at her from his profile picture. The hairs in the back of Jane’s neck rise. Facebook couldn’t have known, right?
“Would you like to order pizza? I’m just guessing you might want pizza since basically everyone loves pizza.”
Here’s a favourite. How many of us are convinced Facebook is listening to your conversations and using keywords from that to target advertising? I mean, it shouldn’t happen, right? Your desktop browser doesn’t even have permission to use the microphone. And you’ve only given WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger and Facebook apps permission to use your camera. And, of course, your microphone for when your record vid–OH MY GOD. No but seriously, that’s a bit far-fetched.
Facebook probably doesn’t listen to your spoken conversations and then change the ads it shows you based on keywords that it hears. Just because you just talked to your colleague about how amazing it would be to visit the Bahamas doesn’t mean that’s the reason you are now seeing flight deals to Nassau. Surely, if you also talked about it on Facebook messenger, or WhatsApp, or liked a bunch of #bahamas pictures on Instagram that initiated the conversation in the first place, maybe then there might be some correlation. Haha, it’s probably all in your head anyway.
“You totally like her. And she totally likes you back. Now kiss…”
After his harsh breakup, Bob had been down for weeks. Slowly he had been getting back in game. One day he noticed Betty tagged into the same picture as one of his good friends. Bob hadn’t seen Betty since high school. Betty looked good. Four years on the university’s track team combined with that West Coast sunlight turned out to be a flattering combination. Bob, struck by beauty-incited curiosity, found himself scrolling through Betty’s profile. Then he found himself there again the next day, and the next. Sure enough, Bob was soon actively following Betty’s activity on Facebook and Instagram alike. Bob was smitten.
Facebook, being the observant network that it is, noticed this activity and thought it was very healthy behaviour. “I will encourage this” determined one of its algorithms. Betty began showing up all over Bob’s feed. Helpful little Facebook was doing him a favour by skipping the phase of having to navigate to Betty’s profiles.
Although Bob was obsess keeping up with Betty’s life, Betty unfortunately didn’t remember Bob existed. Facebook would have none of that. Since Bob was so interested in Betty, there must be some strong spiritual connection between them. It was time to upgrade Bob’s position in Betty’s social ranking.
On Friday, Bob appeared in Betty’s newsfeed. “Is that Bob? Wow, I haven’t seen him since high school” she thought, immediately passing that thought forward from her mind’s conscious section to the crossroads of care-or-not and without hesitation steering the thought to Not and pushing it off the Cliff of Forgetting. Saturday, she saw another story featuring Bob. Strange. Probably a freak coincidence. A coincidence that repeated often for the next two weeks.
“Betty is attending Night Food Market on Main St.” informed Facebook. Would Bob also like t–ATTENDING clicked Bob.
That night, at the Night Food Market on Main St. Betty was walking around with her friend. They just tried an amazing zucchini-mozzarella-skewer. Walking past the food trucks, out of the corner of her eye Betty thought she saw two eyes gleaming from the darkness. The bright lights on the street made it hard to make out anything in the darkness behind the trucks. It was probably nothing. Betty and her friend stopped at the next food truck, their spicy falafel taster could not be ignored. The first bite was like an angel decided to hug your tee–“Hi” interrupted a voice behind them. “Bob! Is that you?” Betty hadn’t seen or talked to Bob since high school but he felt oddly familiar, like she knew everything going on in his life. There was a comfort in seeing him.
Three weeks later, as Bob and Betty updated their relationship statuses, Facebook closed its case file. Job well done. Then again, Facebook probably had nothing to do with this.
What the hell???
Alright, let’s calm down. This blog post is speculative and fictional (probably, hehe). But if you want to take something out all this rambling, please note that the weird scenarios described here are probably not playing out all around us every day. You should however recognize the possibility of using collected data to make assumptions about us, sometimes even correct ones, and using it to guide our behaviour.
Stay safe out there my babies.