How Facebook Secretly Ends Your Relationships

Wednesday Feb 16th 2011 by Mike Elgan
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Facebook assumes we want their software to terminate some of our online connections with friends -- without bothering to tell us.

When you "friend" somebody on Facebook, you'll be able to see their posts on your News Feed forever, right?

When you post a Status update on Facebook, all your friends see it on their News Feeds, as long as they haven't opted to "Hide" your posts, right?

It's possible to know who's seeing your status updates, right?

Wrong, wrong and wrong!

Based on extensive but unscientific polling of my own "social graph," I've discovered a massive disconnect between what people believe happens on Facebook and what actually happens.

People think "friending" somebody enables them to maintain a social connection via the News Feed. When a friend gets a promotion, tells about their vacation or just expresses disappointment in the Oscar nominations, I'll see it in my News Feed. And they'll see my own posts. "Friending" someone means I see their posts and they see mine. That's what people believe.

And they're wrong.

The truth is that Facebook recently started using secret criteria to decide whether or not you'll maintain this News Feed relationship. If Facebook's software doesn't like your relationship, Facebook stops delivering News Feed messages without telling you.

Those criteria probably involve the frequency with which you message, chat, post, comment or interact with each friend.

Imagine if the Post Office did that! "The once-a-year holiday card means you're really not that close, so we'll just burn the cards without delivering them – and without telling anyone."

Imagine if Gmail did that! "Since you hardly ever get e-mail from your mother, we're going to dump any future messages from Mom in the spam folder without telling you."

Imagine if Firefox did that! "You never post comments in the blog you're visiting, so we're going to return an error message saying the web site is no longer in service."

The Good

In fairness, Facebook "edits" your News Feed to improve the user experience. If you have hundreds of friends and never chose to "Hide" any of them on your News Feed -- and if Facebook didn't block any of the messages -- you probably wouldn't like your News Feed very much. You might be overwhelmed by both the quantity and the irrelevance of the messages pouring in.

Facebook has no doubt learned that the general public (and when you have nearly 600 million users, you are in fact dealing with the most general of publics) is more likely to stop using Facebook than endure the suffering of a News Feed that functions as a fire hose of relationship spam.

Most people don't care enough to learn about the settings, or change them.

For the minority that does care, there's an "Edit Options" link at the bottom of your News Feed. By clicking on it, you get a dialog box that lets you see posts from "All of your friends and pages" OR "friends and pages you interact with most," which is the default setting that uses Facebook's algorithms to Hide some of your friends' posts from you. You're also presented with a complete list of friends, with the option to hide or un-hide each friend manually.

Because Facebook's policy is about improving the user experience, there is no connection between who you Hide and who Hides you. And you have no control over or knowledge about who is blocking your posts – whether it's your friends or Facebook.

If Facebook's algorithms are preventing your Status updates from reaching some of your friends, well, there's nothing you can do about that. If a friend posts on your Wall, that may or may not trigger Facebook to un-Hide your updates from that friends' wall. But there's nothing you, personally, can do.

Still, Facebook deserves credit for trying to solve the problem of social information overload in a way that requires no skill or initiative on the part of the user.

It's a hard problem to solve, and Facebook's solution isn't perfect. And it's probably better than doing nothing and simply allowing people to hate Facebook.

The Bad

What's bad about Facebook's approach is that it leaves users in the dark.

Most users don't know any of this is happening. And if they do know it's happening, they don't know how to fix it. And if they do know how to fix it, than cannot know the criteria Facebook uses to block their own updates, nor can they ever know who is seeing their posts.

It's also unknown whether Facebook "grades on a curve." In other words, it's possible that the more "friends" you have, the more aggressively Facebook cuts the connects between News Feeds, based on the belief that you should only have a certain number of friends.

There's no way to know. All of their criteria are secret.

The problem is that Facebook users "friend" people at minimum in order to see each other's Status updates. That Facebook quietly severs these connections without telling users is an unhappy surprise to most people I've revealed this to.

Users think they're connected to people to people via News Feeds when in fact Facebook has already cut that connection.

Many users believe the ability to maintain casual friendships via the News Feed is the main benefit of Facebook.

And it's true: We don't need Facebook to maintain relationships with our closest friends and family. What Facebook is really good at is maintaining not-so-close relationships via the News Feed -- or, at least it used to be before Facebook started ending those relationships.

The Ugly

The ugly reality is that, although Facebook might claim to be responding to your social activity, they are changing it.

Facebook actually shapes and directs the evolution of your social life without telling you.

Let me give you one hypothetical example. Let's say you "friend" an old high school buddy. After making initial contact -- "what have you been up to, where are you living now," etc. -- you simply "stay in touch" with each other via your News Feeds. You're connected but distant. Everybody's happy.

If Facebook never cut that connection, something might happen that would change your relationship. What if you discovered via the News Feed that the person shared a hobby or interest, or that they moved into your neighborhood or had a child start attending the same school as your own kid.

Suddenly, that distant friend might start evolving into a close one. Facebook users often get closer to a small number of previously distant friends by learning of shared interests via the News Feed. That used to be one of the great things about Facebook.

But because Facebook has already decided your friendship isn't relevant, you'll never hear about the changing circumstances. You'll never know about the new hobby, the move, the school or whatever. You'll not only remain distant, but grow increasingly distant due to the Facebook-imposed radio silence.

Facebook's algorithm-enforced policy is to bring you closer to the friends you're already close to, and push you away from the friends you're less close to.

Is that why we signed up for Facebook?

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a column in this space that analyzed the value of social networks like Facebook. The main purpose of Facebook, I concluded, is not that it makes relationships better, but that it enables you to maintain a larger number of relationships.

I pointed out that expanding the number of relationships is an innate human need, and that this need draws people to Facebook.

The News Feed concept is central to this idea. Most Facebook relationships take place exclusively via the News Feed. This is how you can maintain 1,000 relationships. You just watch your News Feed. When someone has a sandwich or an idea or a baby, you hear about it and feel connected to their lives.

This is what is so shocking about Facebook's new policy: It kills the main benefit of Facebook for most users.

What Facebook Should Do

Here's what Facebook should do to make it right:

1. Explicitly reveal to each user who is seeing your updates and who isn't.

2. Occasionally tell people exactly what's going on, that Facebook algorithms automatically sever their connections to some people. Don't just make this knowledge passively available. The goal should be for most Facebook users to actually know this information.

3. Give the user the option to maintain a connection that is about to be cut by the algorithms. Or, at minimum, simply inform the user you have decided to Hide one of their friends.

4. Make it far more obvious to users that they can "Hide" friends from appearing in their news feeds. Favor user choice over software algorithms to determine which items get delivered into News Feeds.

We don't pay for Facebook, and therefore users are not customers. Advertisers are customers.

But Facebook is much more than an online service. Its ubiquity has motivated people to replace other forms of communication, and rely instead on Facebook.

Facebook has a responsibility then to enable users to control who they maintain a relationship with.

Facebook assumes we want their software to terminate our most casual relationships without bothering us with the news or giving us the option to keep them.

Facebook is wrong, and this needs to stop.

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