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Facebook wants to organise my friends, but what if I don’t have any?

Michael Brown // 24th June 2016

A co-worker recently came up to me and told me about a Facebook group she had joined, saying ‘everyone at work was on it’.

I hadn’t received any notification (cue tiny violin…now), but apparently the group was called something along the lines of ‘Friends who work at XYZ’.

Strangely, when my co-worker asked the (Facebook) friend who invited her what prompted her to get a group together with everyone the friend denied creating any group at all, and had no idea what my co-worker was talking about. My first thought was the Facebook group was one of those ultra-secret workplace clubs, and clearly I was deemed too cool, too connected, too hard working to be in it. My second thought was to ask for clarification, and as it turns out the person who ‘created’ the top secret club/group had actually accidentally pressed a button in her phone’s Facebook app that authorised Facebook to create a group on her behalf, based on her connections and whatever else the Earth’s newest superpower thinks it knows about her and her social network. It became clear to me that Facebook sees tremendous value in being the go-to place for us to organise our social lives, so much so that it has created algorithms to organise our lives for us.

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Are Facebook’s algorithms advanced enough to tell the difference between our actual friends and mere acquaintances, though? That is, the person who reacts or comments the most on my posts isn’t necessarily my best friend, nor may the person messaging me the most be my bae either. We all heard about the ‘Year in Review’ video ‘scandal’ where people were seeing pictures of their deceased loved ones in automatically generated slideshows featuring an upbeat and catchy melody. I can’t say I have heard of the same mistake being made in last year’s iteration of the feature, but that could just be because the news in earlier years served as a warning. Facebook’s most visible response was to offer users an easy way to review and change what would be featured in the video, highlighting that the company so hell bent on doing things on our behalf, without our consent, still doesn’t trust its algorithms to understand humanity at its fullest quite yet.

So when Facebook pre-organises our social groups is the company working along the lines of ‘humans aren’t perfect, so we don’t have to be either’, then? Personally, I don’t mind at all that Facebook is trying to be my virtual assistant; I like to think I am a forgiving guy after all. But when the company manages to piss off tens of millions of people with the tiniest redesign of its News Feed I can only imagine how some users will react when they find their ‘frenemy’ hidden amongst their newly created, and prepopulated, ‘Best Friends Forever and Ever’ group.

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Casey Newton over at The Verge learnt firsthand recently how confident the social media giant has become, and how far it is willing to go, when it comes to organising our social lives. His Facebook account decided to throw him a party for his upcoming birthday, and began pestering his friends to come along, and at the same time suggested who would be best to host it. ‘Facebook is starting to get a little Skynet on me,’ his friend Matt texted him after being urged to get together on June 19th for the birthday celebration.

So Facebook now suggests who we should be friends with, how we should organise them and when we should get together. It probably thinks that by doing everything for us we will inevitably ‘complete the circle’ and come back to Facebook to share our new memories together. Again, I don’t really have a problem with this, but I can’t help but contemplate what is next. Will Facebook go a step further and start offering dating suggestions in the future? I mean, the company already knows everything about me, and a whole lot about a huge bunch of other people, so surely they could match me up with my ‘one and only’? Will it then pre-organise our wedding venue and guest list, predict and push us towards a few key life moments like buying a house and having children, naming those children and then start prefilling new Facebook profiles for said children, ready for when they are (legally) old enough to use it? #CircleOfLife

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We already hear the cries of Facebook opponents who say our online profiles and communication don’t reflect ‘real life’. As a cool, connected, hip 24 year old guy that lives a good portion of his life on social media I disagree with this, but as the service slowly takes away the human spontaneity that makes life great, and what ultimately forms the greatest Facebook posts, perhaps those alternative arguments become a little more believable. And to go even further…from an economic point of view, wouldn’t it be cheaper for Facebook to be able to map out our entire lives with a few processes, verses constantly having to adapt to a spontaneous user base?

I am still in the ‘I <3 Facebook’ gang, I swear. Nonetheless, whether or not Facebook is in the early stages of becoming the next Skynet or some other AI overlord, I do see a lot of utility in the service’s prompts for me to be more social with my list of contacts. If anything, the daily birthday reminders can serve as a good wakeup call to how much time has passed since I last spoke to or hung out with XYZ, and if Facebook can (properly) organise a birthday party for me that would certainly take away the anxiety of picking the perfect guest list myself. Whether or not we can depend on the service to actually understand humans as it extends its reach here remains to be seen, though.

And alas, while its ‘sophisticated’ algorithms keep ignoring how valuable my contribution to the work Facebook group would be, I will continue to argue the service hasn’t quite hit the nail on the head here. #AwaitingNotification

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Michael Brown

Michael feels privileged to be part of the #SMPerth community as its first intern.

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