In your face(book)

Is it just me, or has Facebook been very suggestive lately?

I’m not talking about double entendres or indelicate remarks, although it wouldn’t take more than five minutes’ browsing time to discover some of those lurking on a Facebook wall near you.

No, I’m referring to actual suggestions, which Facebook has recently condescended to bestow upon all of us in a section conveniently titled “Suggestions” on the right-hand side of the screen.

For those of you who may not use the ubiquitous social networking site, one of Facebook’s components is a “News Feed” that delivers, almost in realtime, information that has been posted by family, friends, acquaintances, and that guy with whom you made the mistake of sharing your name at the pub on Friday night. When browsing the news feed, which takes up the majority of the display, users also see several small panels on the right-hand side of the screen. These include “Requests” (invitations to groups or events), “Events” (upcoming birthdays, as well as any functions you plan to attend), “Sponsored” (sponsored ads), and my new favorite (if only as cannon fodder), “Suggestions.”

Now, before getting into any discussion of these suggestions, I should note that even the sponsored ads are somewhat uncanny. I don’t know much about programming, but these ads must be somehow tied to the information I’ve posted about myself in my profile. It’s interesting, though, to see what the omniscient Facebook thinks might pique my interest based on what my profile displays.

For example, refreshing the page five times in succession gives me advertisements touting car insurance (“Age 22 and driving?”), morphsuits (“The best fancy dress in the world”), a game called Mafia Wars (“Bored in Boston?”), Mitt Romney (“Conservative principles are absolutely essential to keeping America strong, prosperous and free”), and the Athletes Equation Training Center (“Become a better athlete!”).

Refreshing the page once more brings up an ad for HU-TV (Harvard’s self-produced comedy television channel), which brazenly asks, “Procrastinating? Of course you are.” Evidently someone is counting the number of times I’ve returned to the page…

The other five ads, however, make me fairly confident that computers will not be replacing human beings in the realm of marketing analysis anytime soon. It’s true that all of the ads are connected to me in some tenuous fashion, but in terms of subtle distinctions, they entirely miss the mark.

The car insurance ad, for example, has correctly guessed my age—or, more accurately, must have been given it by Facebook, since it isn’t listed on my public profile. Sadly for them, though, I have no real need of car insurance (or, for that matter, a car).

The morphsuits are hilariously wide of the mark; I do enjoy dressing up, but a full bodysuit made entirely of what appears to be lycra is not exactly my idea of haute couture.

Mafia Wars may be related to the fact that several of what I’ve listed as my favorite films have a tangential link to violence, prisons, or Italy (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Life is Beautiful), but this is purely coincidental, and I can’t actually recall the last time I played a computer- or video-game of any sort.

Mitt Romney is probably closest to the mark, since I’m a conservative trapped in Massachusetts, but anyone who knows me will tell you that the Athletes Equation Training Center should have known that to become a better athlete, you have to be an athlete in the first place.

Better luck next time, Facebook…

But what about the “Suggestions” section that originally caught my attention? I find this part exceedingly interesting for a number of reasons. First, the section is divided into two parts: friend suggestions and suggestions for lapsed connections. These two parts don’t actually have names, but let’s call them “People you ought to befriend” and “Friends you’ve forgotten about.”

In the “people you ought to befriend” section, Facebook in its wisdom displays the names and photos of people with whom it predicts you will wish to share a deeply meaningful cyberconnection. Its main criterion for these suggestions seems to be the number of friends you have in common with the other person; a typical suggestion will read: “[Name]—137 mutual friends.” Just below this, the “Add as a Friend” button is prominently displayed for your clicking pleasure.

In the “friends you’ve forgotten about” section, Facebook displays the names and photos of people with whom you are already friends but whom you’ve neglected to contact for some indeterminate period of time. Below the individual’s name, it alternates perky messages like “Say hello,” “Catch up on Facebook,” or “Reconnect with her.” (Indeed, these statements are more like orders than requests.) Below this, it alternates the option of writing on his wall or sending her a message. What could be easier?

Looking back, I’m fairly certain that I’ve never taken even one of Facebook’s friendly little suggestions. First of all, I challenge the assumption that the best indicator of whether a connection would be a good one is the number of mutual friends. Frankly, if I have 137 friends in common with someone and haven’t added her as my friend, it’s probably because I don’t want to—a studious detachment that takes no small amount of effort to maintain!

As for orders to reconnect, I find the notion somewhat supercilious. I’ll decide when it’s necessary to catch up with my friends, thank you very much. Here, there is also a mismatch between the reality of Facebook and the reality of life. Some of the people Facebook thinks I’ve forgotten are in fact friends I see and speak with every day, which is precisely the reason we aren’t corresponding online. I’m sorry if Mr. Zuckerberg et al. are put out by the fact that I spend more time with real people than with their online profiles, but that’s no reason to be snippy with me—especially when they’re apparently reading my mail.

At bottom, I’m sure it’s all related to revenue. That’s certainly what the ads are there for, and any time spent reconnecting with existing friends and adding new ones at Facebook’s suggestion just increases the amount of time spent on the site and thus the ad revenues resulting from the same. By this logic, it’s hard not to feel used. I’m sure, however, that this development is here to stay—and for now, I’ll put up with it.

But the day that Facebook “suggests” patching up a friendship with someone I’ve blocked, or tries to tell me which of its members might make a good date, or opines that I ought to expand my reading preferences beyond Victorian novels…

That’s the day I walk.


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