How Facebook Programmed Our Relatives

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
June 21, 2018

Three years ago, on his birthday, a law professor watched his e-mail inbox fill with Facebook notifications indicating that friends had posted messages on his wall. The messages made him sad. The clogged inbox was annoying, but what really upset him was having disclosed his birth date to Facebook in the first place. It’s not necessary for social networking or to comply with privacy laws, as some people mistakenly believe. He hadn't paid much attention when he signed up—as with most electronic contracts, there was no room for negotiation or deliberation about terms. He complied with Facebook’s instructions, entered the data and clicked a button.

A few days later, the law professor decided to change the birth date on his Facebook profile to avoid the same situation next year. But when the fake date rolled around, his inbox again flooded with Facebook notifications. Two of the messages were from close relatives, one of whom he had spoken with on the phone on his actual birthday!

How could she not realize that the date was fake?

Our hypothesis: she'd been programmed!

That law professor was one of us (Brett Frischmann), and it confirmed his suspicions that most people respond automatically to Facebook’s prompts to provide information or contact a friend without really thinking much about it. That's because digital networked technologies are engineering humans to behave like simple stimulus-response machines. This is one of the core arguments Frischmann explores with Evan Selinger in Re-Engineering Humanity, a new book that examines a wide range of different human-computer interfaces, including social media.

Social media plays a tremendous role in modern life. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have become the primary ways of keeping in touch with friends, family, classmates and colleagues. To date, however, researchers have not fully explored the degree to which these platforms are literallyprogramming human responses. Social media platforms encode a range of social behaviors: Facebook notifies us when it is time to wish our friends a happy birthday; LinkedIn prompts us to congratulate contacts on their work anniversaries; Twitter breaks its own chronology to show us tweets that many of our friends have liked. As a result, social interactions are often reduced to the click of a button.

Read the full piece at Scientific American