Recently, I began to notice that Facebook’s friend suggestions were increasingly accurate, and increasingly far-fetched.
At first, it seemed innocent enough. My husband’s aunt appeared on my “Suggestions/Add as a Friend” sidebar. While I like Patty and was happy to friend her, I thought it was strange given 1) I’ve never uploaded my email list to Facebook, or given it permission to do so, 2) I’m not connected to any of my husband’s family or friends on any social network, and my husband has refused to join any social network except for one, and there he uses a fake identity and is not connected to anyone remotely connected to his aunt 3) My privacy settings are tight and in theory, I can’t be found if you’re not my friend.
At first I thought, well, we do share the same last name, so I figured perhaps Facebook was suggesting her for that reason. Over the next few days though, I began to mull this logic. Facebook had never suggested a friend based on last name before, and how would Facebook know which person with that last name to suggest? And what about people with the last name “Smith” – that wouldn’t be very effective.
Then, it happened again. This time, Facebook suggested my mother’s former boss.
Yes. My mother’s former boss. My mother is notÂ on Facebook, and I’m not connected to any secondary connections of hers, or even, that I can identify, any tertiary connections. It’s possible her former boss searched for me, though given we’re not friends and have limited contact or knowledge of each other, it seems unlikely. Then today, another creepy suggestion from Facebook–the novel writing teacher I’d recently had at UCLA.
It appears I am not the only one who has experienced this and is troubled by it. The forums are brimming with angry users who have had old lovers, former realtors, people they’d met years ago in bars come up in their suggestion box.
So what’s the score, Facebook?
InsiderFacebook.com, a marketing and development forum has this unhelpful quote from Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer, Chris Kelly: “We are constantly iterating on the algorithm that we use to determine the Suggestions section of the home page.Â We do not share details about the algorithm itself.”
Since Kelly’s not spilling, I sat down with our mobile and gaming expert (and general, in-house smarty) Josh Lovison and Scott Susskind, our resident technology guru to discuss what creepy methods Facebook might be employing. Based on the circumstances I reported, we’ve determined this scenario is likely not an algorithm that is based on shared friends. Scott wondered if Facebook is leveraging shared friends from sites like LinkedIn and other social profiles.Â We also discussed the possibility ofÂ Facebook using methods such as “scraping” which involves taking data from emails and looking for names and email addresses to use in the suggestion engine.Â For example, while I didn’t enter my address book info, maybe my mom’s old boss did. Because Facebook’s import email feature is exhaustive, it includes emails even of those only CC’d on emails. But even stranger is that I use a different email on Facebook than my personal address–which would make this a difficult procedure, in any event. So then you start to wonder if Facebook’s got some other spooky tool they’re not telling us about.
Here’s the deal though, however Facebook is doing it (and it is impressive), they are not doing a stand up job of messaging their practices to users as they evolve. Transparency is key to building and maintaining user trust, and ultimately to generating long term relationships and revenue. Instead, I feel a little dirty, and a little used; and even reading countless Facebook forums has not answered my question about how they are getting this data. If I knew how it was happening, maybe it would feel relatively harmless (for example, maybe my mom’s boss simply searched for me, and that doesn’t seem so bad). But I wasn’t asked. And I’m not okay with it. Brands and marketers, make a note, this isn’t how you want your customers to experience your privacy policies. Definitely not good ethics.
So here’s my meme for the day:
You with me?
*Update to this post, as of today June 24th, it turns out there’s another reason folks are calling out #FacebookFail, status messages, photos, and other updates are to become public, by default. All I have to say is, Oy. Oy vey.