12 April 2018

The Verge: “What happens when Facebook doesn’t tell you a friend has died?”

Yesterday, interface designer Caryn Vainio wrote about the unexpected death of a friend she kept in touch with through Facebook. Before his death, the friend posted a status update about being in the hospital. But Vainio hadn’t seen the message, despite habitually reading every post on her feed in chronological order. Mutual friends didn’t remember seeing the post, either. Not only have I lost a friend, a bunch of us are horrified that we never knew, and we don't know if he KNEW we didn't know, she wrote. In the age of online relationships that social media companies claim to facilitate in a positive way, this feels … unacceptable.

Vainio’s story inverts a common complaint about Facebook accidentally inserting painful memories into people’s feeds. In this case, she’s saying, Facebook didn’t surface a negative post at a time when it was vitally important. The platform guessed what a user wanted to do with some highly personal information, and it chose wrong. But do we really want a Facebook that consistently guesses right?

Adi Robertson

I sympathize with her sad story, but I highly doubt seeing your entire feed of friends’ posts, like she suggests, would solve this kind of problem. This is a common fallacy thrown around every time someone is dissatisfied with some aspect of modern social networks. The truth is, we are sharing so many small bits and pieces throughout the day, and we collect increasing numbers of friends, that it would be impossible to keep up with everything all the time. Suppose you have a couple of friends in another time zone, so they post while you are asleep; by the time you log in later, their posts would be pushed further down the feed by things shared more recently.

I don’t frequently agree with Benedict Evans (mostly because he uses such convoluted metaphors that I sometimes doubt even he understands his own points), but a recent article fits in perfectly in this argument: ‘The death of the newsfeed’.

If you’re worried that you’re missing updates from friends, here are a couple of things I would recommend:

  • Categorize friends into lists, mark them as ‘close friends’ or set their updates to ‘show first’ – some of these tools are almost seven years old! I have the sneaking suspicion that the people who complain most about the news feed are precisely those who have no idea these options exist.
  • Or better yet: remove friends you don’t keep in touch with. This improves the signal-to-noise ratio for the remaining. Not to mention it decreases the chance your connections will unwittingly share your private information with random apps!
  • Or better still: talk to your friends directly and ask them how are they doing! We should let go of this concept of ‘passive friendship’, where we simply consume a news feed generated by obscure algorithms for obscure purposes, and take active charge of our social life.

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