Original article was published on Artificial Intelligence on Medium
Your Memories: Brought to you by Facebook
Are They Selecting for Your Subconscious?
A little over a year ago I was doing my masters of information at the University of Toronto. I decided to take a course that strayed out of my comfort zones of archives, records and library reference. “Platform Politics and Power,” was a course that I referred to as ‘Facebook Class’ and it basically was talking about different social media platforms, how they function and why that is important in establishing their influence and monetary power. For the course we had to undertake a research project and I decided to have my project collect personal data about Facebook’s feature, memories.
I was interested in how social media platforms can distort our perception of the world, and I had found a piece about Facebook memories. The piece by Julia Shaw for Scientific American talks about how any time you remember a life event, you ultimately are interacting with it and enhancing that memory. Additionally, in an article published by the Psychological Bulletin, “Forgetting as a Consequence of Retrieval: A Meta-Analytic Review of Retrieval-Induced Forgetting,” the authors discuss how when something is remembered there are target items and non-target items. When you engage with a memory, target items can be enhanced and become stronger, while non-target items may recede (I don’t want to summarize their work so I have linked it to the text).
After reviewing these findings as well as other scholarship I decided I wanted to record the stats of my own Facebook memories. I tracked what post Facebook suggested to me, how many likes that post originally got, whether it was through another application such as Instagram, hashtag usage on the original post, if the post was shared by friends, and finally if the post had been shared from a Facebook group page. Not only did I want to see what the algorithm for this feature but I wanted to see how my own memories seemed to change.
Unsurprisingly my results showed that tagging, meaning connecting the name of another Facebook user, was a priority. Tagging means that other users are much more likely to interact with a post. The person you tagged will have their friends see the post as well and they may interact, with it and perhaps share it themselves.
The way Facebook memories works is that it reaps all of your posts from previous years on the particular day you are going on the app. It turned out that 87.5% off the time the post chosen by the feature was the one with the most tags. In addition to this, there were three times in the thirty day period I had past posts that were shared from Facebook groups. Those posts had a 100% selection rate. I don’t know if the posts shared from the past from my Simpsons Trivia Group would be brought to the attention of the group if I shared the memory too. I am willing to bet that it would.
My other data showed that 93% of the time the post with the most likes was selected and 86% of those posts had a friend comment attached to them as well. I understand that this is not exactly a legitimate study, as I am one person using one Facebook account. However, I did glean that popularity breeds more popularity. Facebook wants those clicks, it is what makes their advertisement more profitable and allows them to interact more with their users, creating more data. It really wasn’t a huge shock that the more interactions a post gained would make it more likely to be in memories; it was popular the first time, why not use it again? I however had a really interesting change in how I remembered one specific event.
I was over at my little cousins house with my sister. We were watching a movie and my cousin braided our hair into fishtail braids. We posted images of the braids on Instagram, and my settings automatically share the post with Facebook. The post had my sister tagged in it as well as being liked by members of the family and having some hashtags thrown in for good measure. It was chosen for my Facebook memory. After my memory was presented to me I had gone back to their house for a Christmas celebration I remembered the image. The image in my mind was framed with an Instagram frame. I had the image in my head when I thought about my cousins, or going to their house. I could also picture the introductory message for Facebook memories above the framed image of my fishtail braid. I was remembering through the platform, and they were framing visualizations in my mind.
This eerie realization brings me to my conclusion. Transparency for algorithmic functioning should be mandatory. Platforms are constantly updating their algorithms and if we are interacting with them we should know how they are interacting with us. It seems a bit pathetic to remember your life through the framing of a social media platform. It is downright unsettling to think that you are doing it without knowing. Some may say that these are included in the user agreements, however the explicit description of algorithmic functioning is not outlined there in actuality. I would suggest that you, YES YOU, the user make an effort to read at least a little bit about algorithmic functioning and how it can affect your perceptions. Your mind is malleable and you don’t want social media overlords manipulating it.