whatknows :: do you?

October 30, 2010

When our memories are algorithmic

Filed under: Academic,Technology — Jed @ 9:19 pm

Last week on Mashable, I read a blog post stating, “Facebook is doing its very best not to make you terribly sad.”

I expect you have noticed the new “Photo Memories” box that appear in the upper right-hand side of Facebook’s interface — basically a photo including you and one of your friends. Although I rarely click on them, I kind of like the addition. I had not, however, realized that this addition might be making scores of Facebook users depressed by showing them painful photos including their exs.

So Facebook has fixed this, and its all well and good. But it did give me chuckle given my propensity to rant about attempts to turn our social lives into algorithms.

The day before I read this post, I gave a lecture on “Remembering, Forgetting and the Challenges of Representing Humans” in Social Implications of Information Systems. During  this lecture I talked to students about the ways in which the design of a site like Facebook can help us share details from our lives, but in doing so it also restrains what can be shared.  When talking about Facebook’s Relationship Status I made the point that a drop-down box of values is probably too limited to capture the full range of our relationship experiences (something I have blogged about before).

One of my students explained that even when we do use the system Facebook designs, sometimes the information we provide is an outright lie. On her Facebook profile, apparently, she is married to her “best gay friend.”

So back to the photos. It’s great that Facebook is no longer making people depressed. Also, I kind of like the new feature. But it seems that Facebook is once again relying on the data people provide in ways that might be problematic. After all, I suspect my student will eventually meet the man of her dreams, and when the time is right they’ll update their Facebook and let the world know. However, this also means she’ll have to break up with her best friend, and Facebook will no longer remind them of the fun times they have had over the years.