By David Rutter
With all due respect to the algorithm wizards at Facebook, they’ve sort missed the point with “Friend suggestions.”
True, it seems preposterous that Facebook and Mark Elliot Zuckerberg could get any element of interpersonal relationships wrong, but there it is.
This “friend suggestion” is a relatively new standard communication from Facebook and additional to “friend requests” which come from fellow Facebookers seeking affiliation with you. The “suggestion” option is based on computer analysis of your search habits.
But I have received “suggestions” in behalf of 30 people. Here are some of my potential new friends being promoted by Facebook: An ex-wife who barely tolerates me being in the state with her; the former husband of my life partner who hates me more than his ex-wife; a former corporate colleague who suckered me into a business meeting and then fired me from a profession I had hoped to continue for another decade. Nothing personal, you understand. I’m just crushing your career at its highest trajectory point because someone told me to do it. Have a nice day.
There are a dozen or who accidentally were in the same room with me on one day in the last 10 years for no particular reason, though we never exchanged what you’d call an introduction.
There are former co-workers, many of whom were close friends before Facebook, and we all use Facebook to keep connected. But other former colleagues—too many for comfort’s sake— were never my friends when we worked together. And they made sure afterwards that I knew they would not be my friends, either, despite Facebook’s nudgings.
Another subset contains friends of a person I already know from Facebook. This suggested relationship is based on the premise that I would wish to be “friends” with anyone because a third party I know might know them.
In the real world, we call those people “strangers.”
Facebook suggested that I join a group devoted to “Olson Twins gossip.” Cripes! A former sportswriter I once called in print “a useless lapdog for Bobby Knight” is projected as a friend. Don’t think so.
All these karmic collisions reflect that Facebook designers, scientists and programmers either do not know what a “friend” is, at least as I have encountered the term— or they are refining the term for commercial advancement.
Or just as likely, they are rewarded for “churn” — people moving To, ‘Fro and Yonder in a chaotic dance that creates “activity” but no tangible or meaningful results.
One of my “suggested friends” is a regional newspaper editor who does not know me, but does not answer her phone or return a half dozen calls seeking to talk about a potential news story. Facebook somehow picked her as a “friend suggestion” because I know some of her colleagues.
Luckily, Facebook has constructed a trap door to escape this Mobius Loop. Says the official tutorial: “From the opened page click on Notifications from the left section of the page. From the right section under All Notifications, click on a Facebook option. From the appeared list uncheck the checkbox in front of the “Adds a friend you suggested” option. Finally, click on Save Changes button to make the changes permanent.”
All this evidence reinforces that, aside from your role being digitized data points on the grid, Facebook does not have much idea who you are as a unique sentient being, despite its corporate chumminess. Yes, theoretically you are the sum total of all the events of your life. But you are also unique for the feelings and moments you never share with anyone.
As for the life you choose to share, Facebook does not recognize that you are a human being with deeply held friends who were well-earned over decades of sharing triumph and tragedy. All it knows is a cumulative running total of who shows up on Facebook, and how often you — or people you know— interact with them.
But “interaction” is a thin definition of friendship.
You might not be a casual person with casual affections, which does not imply you lack the deeper variety.
But you might not ever have been casual about anything. Not everyone is designed to seek elective office by shaking hands with 1,000 total strangers, and pretending each is an old buddy. That makes you indifferent to most of the people you encounter every day, but they are not necessarily potential enemies. Or friends, either.
Facebook only sees a small prism of your reality.
In the Facebook universe, it only seems you have 320 million potential friends in the United States just waiting for you to reach out.
The truth is that you can’t have 300 good friends even if you were inclined. That’s because there is not enough time or energy to invest in making those relationships real, and your brain is not big enough to power more than five deep friendships at a time, and another 150 you’d consider “good friends”.
All the others are just photographic profile faces attached to bios and resumes.
That deeper limit on real friendship has been scientifically verified by Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary anthropologist at Oxford in England. He has made a study of how many people the average person really knows. It’s about 150.
That’s a biologically built-in number that transcends culture and even your primate family. The shared limiting factor is the size of your brain synapses, regardless if you are a chimpanzee, gorilla or human.
You consciousness simply does not accommodate more than 150 in the “friend file cabinet.”
Dunbar does not suggest we all need 150 friends because even that number is ephemeral. Start counting the names of your “friends” right now. When you get to 50, you’ll hit a psychic brick wall. That’s because at any moment in your life, the people with whom you share llfe likely has shifted to a different group. Fifty of those your brain retains as “friends’ likely aren’t your friends any longer.
As for 150, that’s merely the number of people with different levels of connection that we recognize as being involved in our lives. We know them. But “Friend No. 151” is likely to be all but a stranger to us.
It’s our brain functioning as a filter for incoming data. Your soul guards the entry gate.
Facebook may be functioning only in the commercial sense when it seeks to redefine what the word “friend” means. Because we don’t argue over the definition, Facebook might be winning that debate because we haven’t chosen to reject the new paradigm.
Culture does this all the time. What the word and functional relevance that “phone” meant to your grandparents is not at all similar to what the term means now. Technology not only improves machines, but it also changes our perception of what the machine means.
Perhaps Facebook is doing the same to the concept of “friend.”
But deeper friendship is so subtle an investment that I strongly suspect Facebook cannot yet understand its nuance, because friendship is a human activity, not a technological one. It’s not even a commercial relationship.
And before Zuckerberg’s algorithms stand in judgment, and I must answer: No, I am not a robot. I am having enough difficulty just being a human being.