Public (Research) Design: Un-friend Stories

An Introduction

[Cross Posted at the CASTAC Blog]

Ask an anthropologist a question and they’ll tell you a story. In this case, you didn’t ask, but I’m going to tell. During the fall of 2012, I was perusing my Facebook feed before bedtime, imagining myself to be reconnecting with old friends and keeping up with their lives through their links, posts and various photos. I was ruminating on the continually tweaked feed algorithms that always seemed to send friends into the foreground and others out of view. One old friend in particular and his regular kid photos were strangely absent, so I flicked open the side panel of Facebook’s iOS client and began searching for his name. Nothing turned up in the auto-complete, which was strange… At which point I realized quickly meant that I had been un-friended. Indeed an actual search yielded his profile, which offered me the friendly blue-button “Add Friend.” At which point I pondered, “I thought we were.”



Here was a guy who I shouldn’t have been friends with. He was a football player and I was a geek. I played video games and took Computer Science classes (and Women’s Studies classes). He was a Physics Major and jock. But, we lived next door to one another and after a particularly extensive round of playing Quake on my PowerBook 3400 I had stepped into the hallway of my dorm to be greeted with the sound of retching next door. I dropped in and asked, “hows it going?” (Incidentally, probably one of my de facto ethnographic questions.) We ended up chatting for a few hours (it was his roomate, not him having difficulty) until the worst seemed over and I eventually retired to my room.

A few years later, he was still a football player, but also a Mathematics and Computer Science Major, similar to myself. We worked together on a project team during our senior-level software engineering course. We cajoled one another through a particularly horrific experience with a probability course. We even managed to get snowed into a computer lab while crunching at the end of our senior project. Once we graduated, like most college kids, everyone went their separate ways. A decade later (or more, now that I think about it) when I received a friend request from him on Facebook, I was happy to accept and seemingly catch up.

Designing Publicly

A different story: I started playing with Facebook’s Developer APIs a couple of years ago, teaching them as part of summer courses at the University of Georgia in the New Media Institute. An early prototype was a Facebook “App” that displayed a leader-board of users who had authorized the app according to those with the most friends. In other words, it would show a top ten list of those with the most friends of the users who had authorized the app. It was a sample bit of code for students, but also a moment to get them to reflect on how many “friends” on Facebook they had and what that meant.

After my un-friending experience I returned to the Facebook social graph. I built a prototype app that would, when you visited the app, let you know who your new friends and un-friends were since your last visit. Relatively easy. I suspect that is what some of the available systems do right now. Some even do it for Twitter.

But, I was reluctant to do anything with the app (in particular release it). It seemed too much like “friend” surveillance, and we have more than enough of that already without each and every person on Facebook self-surveilling one another. There was also the issue of resources. If I did something like this well, I knew it would get use. Did I really want to offer tribute to the god of Amazon Web Services (AWS) just to allow people to know when they’d been un-friended? [Because scale is a very real issue here.]

When I queried the Facebook Oracle on the idea, even my network of friends were interested/apprehensive/dubious/worried. But why did I care? I was interested because I had been moved by my own un-friending. I never followed up on it. I never talked about it until nearly two months later with my partner and nearly eight months later on Facebook. But even now, it gives me great pause when thinking about social-media, technology and the ethnographic perspective.

Thus, I now wonder, what would a meaningful (or even playful) experience of un-friending be? How might it serve to convince people to think about their friends on Facebook or the nature of friendship in general? How might it explore surveillance and algorithmic culture? How might it be done ethnographically?

The Point, Really

The point, really, is that as someone interested in and capable of building these things, I often wonder if I should. There will be innumerable IRB issues associated with the building of such a thing if I wish to make research use of it. There are numerous ethical issues involved with its design and a hundred technical issues. Should I do it? What would it be? What is the potential for good and for harm?

Thus, this is partially a query to the Culture Digitally community. I can imagine numerous ways to take “Un-Friend Stories,” which is my unofficial name for the project. Initially I imagined that the “penance” that one must pay for surveilling their new and un-friends would be an occasional request for a story. It could be ignored. All stories would be curated (by evil old me). People would likely suppress the feed posts it would offer, but I’d be able to sleep at night.

Now, however, I don’t think that’s enough. Maybe I present the user with a variety of voices in their current network, presented graphically as will-o’-the-wisps perhaps, and it’s up to the user to explore why a voice is or isn’t present. Maybe, just maybe one of those voices is gone for good, but it’s up to the user to reflect on that absence.

My experience forced me to think about my friends and Facebook’s algorithmic presentation of (and, yes, I know I can pick between top and newest posts) information to me. I had to take a journey and think about friendship.

If I can do that for others, is it still good? Or is it still just another brick in the surveillance wall?

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