In the spring of 2010, Facebook experimented with a new feature called Photo Memories. Basically, the interface places old photos on the right side of your browser in a sidebar module while you explore various Facebook pages. It’s an interesting feature, because it directly conflicts with the attention economy that Facebook has cultivated, where users sit for hours refreshing their Newsfeeds, checking for updates from their friends. And occasionally it’s nice to come across an old photo long forgotten, especially if it’s a hilarious or memory-worthy photograph.
But there’s been a controversy in the relationship arena. Since the feature had been implemented, a large number of users have been faced with seeing photos of their current significant others, but those pictures are old memories of when said S.O.s were photographed with ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends. This InsideFacebook article about the feature lists comments about how annoying and painful these photo recommendations are. A Facebook group called I HATE PHOTO MEMORIES was created to protest the implementation internally. Even my own girlfriend has complained to me about Facebook recommending her photos of me with former exes.
Recently, though, Facebook solved the Photo Memories That You’d Rather Not Remember problem by implementing a change in the recommendation system, so that any recommended photographs would not include users with whom you have had a Facebook relationship. According to a second InsideFacebook article, Facebook’s photo project manager, Sam Odio, commented, “Hi All – I’d like to let you know that we’re listening to your feedback. The photo memories product no longer shows tagged photos of your friends if you were previously in a relationship with them.” So it seems like the problem has been solved.u
Not quite. Let’s take a step back and look at profiles as spaces for teen culture to see the new conflict at work with Facebook’s “solution.”
Since I’m working under danah boyd at Microsoft Research, I’m going to draw from a lot of her writing to tease out the issue.
danah’s written a lot on identity creation online, specifically within the context of teenagers: how they form relationships with friends, how those relationships manifest online, etc. Opposed to that, she’s also written a fair amount on user configurability: that is, how mediated online platforms, like Facebook, structure what a user can do with the system they’re given. For example, Facebook configures a user’s presentation of him- or herself by allowing only certain information to be placed in certain areas (Hobbies go here, Political Affiliation goes here, Jobs go here, etc.). Of course, these two issues — contextual creation versus structured configuration — are at odds with each other, and usually the former dominates the latter. And because a lot of users — especially teens — don’t want to be corralled into the limits of an egocentric social networking site’s platform, they tend to go out of their way to “hack” the profile system, either literally through code (eg., MySpace profiles) or culturally. And it is this last point that conflict with Facebook’s solution.
The cultural behavior of users crafting the visibility of their friends in their profiles is an interesting point of contention on Facebook. One of MySpace’s major features was its Top 8 list, where a user could list eight of his or her friends out of the aggregate list of hundreds. Top 8 is important particularly for younger users, whose daily lives are consumed with fashioning their identities around the fluctuating relationships they share with friends, family, coworkers, teachers, adults, etc., because in choosing eight “favorite” people, the list defines a part of who they are.
Facebook, though, does not have a Friend-parsing widget like MySpace. Some third-party apps were developed to enable those sort of options, but the low level of adoption across a social network site like Facebook — especially one that now boasts over 500 million users — means an insignificant module like that would not hold its popularity over a long period of time. So a question remains: how do teens situate themselves in relation to their friends on Facebook, when it’s not a central part of the platform?
One of the more recent behaviors in response to this question is the case of Facebook siblings and relatives. A user — most likely a teenager — will invite his or her closest friends to be a “sibling,” which means that the friend’s profile is linked on the user’s profile in a very distinct and visible position on the “Info” page. It’s a trend among a lot of high school students that wish to make their friends more a part of their Facebook identity. And more often than not — or at least it’s my assumption — teens will list their friends instead of their actual parents and siblings, to retain a barrier between their social lives familial lives.
But the ability to list relatives is a fairly recent addition to the Facebook profile. Before that, the only basic feature to show distinctly a relationship between one user and another was the Relationship Status.
And I hope by now that just by mentioning Relationship Status, you understand where I’m going with this.
When I was in college, only a couple years ago (and let’s be honest — it’s still a huge factor today with all teenagers), the Facebook Relationship Status changed youth culture radically. That you could see if an acquaintance was single or taken, or who they were dating, or who they recently broke up with, and then also comment on all those developments, was a game changer in college, and then high school, culture. But the Relationship Status wasn’t necessarily used for relationships. A good number of my friends would set themselves up “in a relationship” with a best friend. I even know a couple people that are dating others, but list a different friend in their Relationship Status. So there was and still is a significant trend in pairing yourself up with a buddy on Facebook, even if you’re not dating.
So this interesting bit of youth culture immediately conflicts with the changes that Facebook implemented to avoid current significant others to see their partners’ exes. If you’re “dating” a friend on Facebook — just so that your acquaintances will understand that you’re best friends — Facebook will never recommend a photo of your friend if you cancel that relationship.
This social media “cultural hacking” takes place on all sorts of Web platforms, in direct opposition to any sort of “user configuration” by which the platform intends each and every user to abide. For example, YouTube implemented the ability to add links to YouTube videos, but some users use those links to combat the “Recommended Videos” displayed in the right-column module, or we can even look at the change in video form that has developed from YouTube users including three different optional endings that a viewer can choose to click on. But the implications of user configuration on youth culture are even more interesting, because thousands of teens growing up with Facebook and other Web 2.0 technology are shaping their identities in part because of the social interactions and connections they maintain on these websites. And no matter the mantra that companies give to users — such as Facebook being a place where users should share everything — the users will tend to behave differently.