Algorithm Fetishism or What Facebook Gets Wrong

My Facebook news feed is overflowing with people complaining about the changes to Facebook’s news feed/live feed. They boil down to two complaints (1) the news feed has too little and (2) the live feed has too much.

Facebook has also introduced a new form of suggestion — they are prodding us to “reconnect” with people, write on others’ walls, suggest profile pictures for those without them, and other forms of what can only be described as social meddling.This is causing much mockery amongst my peers as well as some horror — one friend reports that her friends have been urged to “reconnect” with a friend who passed away last summer.

At the core of the newsfeed and the suggestions problem is the same mistaken belief, one that I think all of these sites share (I’ve seen it so often on Last.fm) — the men who run these sites are so enamored of their algorithms that they trust them far more than they trust us to make decisions about what we want to see. People know what they want but Facebook is sure that it knows better. It’s one thing when Amazon or Netflix suggests a book or film I may not know about. It’s quite another when Facebook suggests a person with whom I already have a relationship.

If I were in charge of the site’s social engineering we would have checklists that allowed us to indicate whether or not we want to see who has friended whom, who has joined which group, applications, photos, notes, etc. We would have sliders to allow us to determine how much or which kinds of information we saw about which friends. The algorithms could learn from this, and adjust accordingly to make suggestions, but the end users would always have the power to override the algorithms’ suggestions.

Facebook’s new suggestions also make the mistake of thinking that the world of Facebook is the only world there is, so that if people haven’t communicated on site, they haven’t communicated at all. Thus I am being urged to reconnect with a colleague I see several times a week, a friend is being urged to reconnect with her boyfriend, and I am supposed to reconnect with someone with whom I am working on a grant proposal right now. My own research shows that on average friend pairs on Last.fm use at least 2 other means of interacting. I would assume that number is higher for Facebook relationships.

I recognize (I’ve seen the data) that there is very little one-on-one communication that takes place through Facebook (or any other social network site), but there are good reasons for that, and it isn’t that we haven’t been reminded to do so. It’s that either we are communicating just fine off site, or we don’t want to communicate more than we already do. Thus the suggestions feel like either ignorant or invasive intrusions into our ability to manage our own social lives without their computer-generated wisdom guiding us.

I am just waiting for the sidebar suggestion: “Nancy, call your mother! She worries!” Because I’d never think of such a thing without them.

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Comments (14) to “Algorithm Fetishism or What Facebook Gets Wrong”

  1. “Facebook’s new suggestions also make the mistake of thinking that the world of Facebook is the only world there is, so that if people haven’t communicated on site, they haven’t communicated at all.”

    Yup, that’s it in a nutshell. Almost everyday, my gf is displayed as person I should reconnect with by writing something on her wall. There are other media …

  2. Some of the suggestions you make are indeed available under “Settings,” but you’re right — it’s not quite enough.

  3. BD — The settings are almost all binary by the person — we can choose not to see particular people. Supposedly we can choose to see more about some people but I am not convinced that actually works. We have no ability to unilaterally say “I don’t want to see applications” let alone “I only want to see applications if people X, Y and Z are using them.” What’s available in the settings is far too crude to make a meaningful difference beyond excluding the people we don’t care about as much entirely.

  4. Great post. They seem to have decided that the only strong ties are those that are facebook-maintained. It is indeed meddlesome, and rather arrogant.

  5. I think you’d find BJ Fogg’s work on technology and persuasion quite interesting. He also has a book coming out called Facebook and Psychology. Anyway, I love this post. Thank you.

  6. Even though this is one of the more overloading-with-unnecessary-stuff changes fb has made, it is funny how everytime it changes you get a slew of people moaning about it and joining ‘change facebook back!’ groups… change it back to what? The last layout you complained about? But I do agree with all your suggestions here. The only ‘option’ you have now to make a change you is hiding someone completely. But I really don’t want to know that someone just befriended 30 people (which shows up one at a time until you refresh). The groups people join, comments people make on photos etc were fine to the side out of the way.

    One tip about the ‘reconnect’ nonsense – I closed those suggestions and after it suggested a few more people it stopped. Now all I have is a rotation of about 4 ‘so-and-so became a fan of…’ suggestions – just like the old days! Or rather just like what was there on the last layout. These are as easily ignored as the ads… or a shortcut way to get to someone’s profile that I actually want to look at! Just click on their name. Luckily these are page suggestions of people I *do* want to ‘connect’ with.

  7. also… I disagree that you can make the changes you suggest under settings. All you can do is changed what notifications you get by email, and what people see of the activities *you* yourself do. Unless we encourage everyone to hide their befriending, I don’t think this is going to make a difference… unless I’m missing something.

  8. Two thoughts.
    1. Mashable rightly notes the reconnect feature is more about Facebook trying to prod low activity users than about getting you to reconnect.
    2. It doesn’t matter how good a redesign or changes are. Some users will complain. This happened when I worked at newspapers, where people complained about fonts and layouts. This happens every time ESPN.com changes its front page and any sport index. This has happened every time we’ve upgraded our profiles.

  9. Here’s the Mashable link, for anybody who is interested: http://mashable.com/2009/10/28/facebook-reconnect-strategy/

  10. Couldn’t agree more. The funniest thing is this quote in Facebook’s Help file re. the new News Feed:

    “Highlights and the News Feed were combined into a single stream so that you could have more control over what you view on your home page and stay connected with your friends.”

    So “no control” is more than what, exactly?

    BTW, a lot of people have noticed that some friends have disappeared from their Live Feed since it launched. One of the reasons is because Facebook created a “maximum number of people to display” option and set the default to 250. You can change it but it’s not very clear how, so I posted the steps here for anyone who is having this problem:

    http://www.techforluddites.com/2009/10/bug-alert-friends-are-missing-from-the-new-facebook-live-feed.html

  11. Matt — I agree that people will always complain, but that doesn’t mean that they are always wrong, even if they usually adapt. In the case of Last.fm, I know several people who have quit using most of the service, or at least elements of it since their big “upgrade” made sociability so hard to maintain.

    And yes, suggestions are about prodding inactive users, but aside from how exploitative this feels, I am not sure they fully understand how the active users will respond. Their analytics will tell, but I know many of us are really appalled and that to others it smells more like desperation than Mashable’s spin of “brilliant idea!”

    All sites like this face the struggle of balancing the heavy users with the less or inactive ones, and what pulls in the inactives may well alienate the actives.

  12. I’m curious about the statement “there is very little one-on-one communication that takes place through Facebook (or any other social network site)” What is the data you mention you have and do you include Twitter as one of the social network sites you refer to?

  13. Bobby: No, twitter is not included, although I would bet that people engage in regular direct interaction (@ replies and DMs) with a very small percentage of those whom they follow or who follow them. A brief excerpt from a chapter I have forthcoming in the Blackwell Handbook of Internet Studies:

    “On the whole, there is very little direct communication amongst friendship pairs in SNSs. In their analysis of 362 million fully-anonymized message headers on Facebook, Golder et al.(2007) found that only 15.1% of friends ever exchanged messages. In their analysis of over 200,000 MySpace messages, Gilbert et al.(2008) found that 43.5% of friends never commented on one anothers’ profiles, and only 4% exchanged ten or more comments. Baron’s (2008) research found that 60% of Facebook users wrote on others’ walls either never or less than once a week.”

    Baron, N. (2008). Always on: Language in an online and mobile world. New York: Oxford.

    Gilbert, E., Karahalios, K. & Sandvig, C. (2008) The Network in the Garden: An Empirical Analysis of Social Media in Rural Life, CHI 2008, April 5–10, 2008, Florence, Italy.

    Golder, S. A., Wilkinson, D., & Huberman, B. A. (2007, June). Rhythms of social interaction: Messaging within a massive online network. In C. Steinfield, B. Pentland, M. Ackerman, & N. Contractor (Eds.), Proceedings of Third International Conference on Communities and Technologies (pp. 41-66). London: Springer.

    Most friend pairs on Last.fm in my research did not use the site for one-on-one communication either.

  14. Excellent article! They should have at least named their “smart” filter something different so average users have some clue as to what is going on instead of wondering why the news feed is out of order and missing things. There is something deceptive here that must be part of a bigger marketing scheme because the change is simply STUPID!