Datafied Social Connectedness

Much of the time that I spend scrolling through my Facebook News Feed, a part of me always asks: why am I seeing these particular people’s posts and pictures over others, after all they are all my Facebook ‘friends’ so shouldn’t they all be equally valued. Similar questions come up with dating apps like Tinder, where as I swipe through potential matches I notice that many profiles share striking similarities, like attending the same college or sharing a love of dogs. If you are someone who has accounts with social media platforms and dating apps, I would be surprised if you haven’t questioned the way that these sites represent our social connections and potential romantic partners.

tinder_profiles

Tinder UI. Courtesy of Tech Crunch

The reason why these apps construct our social and dating lives in the ways that they do is because they, like most everything on the internet, are controlled by data and algorithms. In chapter 3 of We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of Our Digital Selves, author John Cheney-Lippold discusses the role that data and algorithms play in constructing our online relationships, both in the social and romantic spheres. Cheney-Lippold states that data:

“arbitrates our social world, expanding past algorithmic identifications of ‘you’ and ‘me’ and into algorithmic mediations between ‘us’ and ‘we.’” (Kindle Locations 2977-2978)

Using the examples of Facebook and the free dating site OkCupid, Cheney-Lippold describes the way that algorithms use data from our demonstrated preferences and/or answers to certain survey questions to construct curated social and dating experiences for us. In the case of Facebook, Cheney-Lippold notes that those who are visible on your Facebook News Feed are there because they’re datafied as close to you.

Facebook_newsfeed

Typical FaceBook News Feed. Courtesy of Business Insider

Close would mean that over your time as friends on Facebook: you like and comment on their posts, chat with them on messenger, maybe poke them occasionally, and interact with them in any number of platform mediated ways on a regular basis. Facebook then evaluates these interactions and creates a hierarchy of your Facebook friends in the form of a numerical appraisal system, which is then used to determine the level of visibility for every one of your connections.

According to Cheney-Lippold, OkCupid’s construction of romantic matches functions in a similarly arbitrary fashion. Like any other dating site or app, OkCupid’s mission is to find you the most desirable romantic matches, while minimizes the amount that you see anyone who is undesirable.

In contrast to Facebook, which simply monitors daily interactions on the platform to determine levels of connectedness, OkCupid makes its users answer a series of survey questions that are designed to build an algorithmic representation of one’s personality. OkCupid’s algorithm uses each individuals’ survey answers to evaluate how well they match with other users. The site then presents the percentage of how good a match each user is for one another.  In addition to your survey answers, OkCupid also monitors your behavior on the site to determine your matchability score, which is a social rating that also determines your potential matches.

Cheney-Lippold’s discussion of the respective algorithmic architectures of Facebook and OkCupid reveals that both of these sites are using somewhat arbitrary data to determine the status of your social and romantic relationships. Considering how much of our lives is spent online, the actions of our datafied selves tend to have real world implications. As much as we would all hate to admit it, our social lives have become intricately intertwined with platforms like Facebook and Instagram, to the point where our interactions on these platforms become almost as important as those in the physical world.

okcupid_profile

Typical OkCupid Profile. Courtesy of Daily Mail

The same is true with dating sites and apps like OkCupid and Tinder. People invest significant amounts of time into these dating sites and apps so that they can meet a partner in the physical world. This of course begs the question: do we want data and the respective algorithms of Facebook and OkCupid to have this level of influence in our social and romantic lives?

The ubiquity of these platforms makes this question very tough to reckon with, because as time goes on we have less and less of a choice in how much data will determine our social selves.


Works Cited

Cheney-Lippold, John. We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of Our Digital Selves. New York University Press, 2017.

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