Tag: Family

Facebook Figured Out My Family Secrets, And It Won’t Tell Me How

Rebecca Porter and I were strangers, as far as I knew. Facebook, however, thought we might be connected. Her name popped up this summer on my list of “People You May Know,” the social network’s roster of potential new online friends for me.

The People You May Know feature is notorious for its uncanny ability to recognize who you associate with in real life. It has mystified and disconcerted Facebook users by showing them an old boss, a one-night-stand, or someone they just ran into on the street.

These friend suggestions go far beyond mundane linking of schoolmates or colleagues. Over the years, I’d been told many weird stories about them, such as when a psychiatrist told me that her patients were being recommended to one another, indirectly outing their medical issues.

What makes the results so unsettling is the range of data sources—location information, activity on other apps, facial recognition on photographs—that Facebook has at its disposal to cross-check its users against one another, in the hopes of keeping them more deeply attached to the site. People generally are aware that Facebook is keeping tabs on who they are and how they use the network, but the depth and persistence of that monitoring is hard to grasp. And People You May Know, or “PYMK” in the company’s internal shorthand, is a black box.

To try to get a look into that black box—and the unknown and apparently aggressive data collection that feeds it—I began downloading and saving the list of people Facebook recommended to me, to see who came up, and what patterns might emerge.

On any given day, it tended to recommend about 160 people, some of them over and over again; over the course of the summer, it suggested more than 1,400 different people to me. About 200, or 15 percent of them, were, in fact, people I knew, but the rest appeared to be strangers.

And then there was Rebecca Porter. She showed up on the list after about a month: an older woman, living in Ohio, with whom I had no Facebook friends in common. I did not recognize her, but her last name was familiar. My biological grandfather is a man I’ve never met, with the last name Porter, who abandoned my father when he was a baby. My father was adopted by a man whose last name was Hill, and he didn’t find out about his biological father until adulthood.

The Porter family lived in Ohio. Growing up half a country away, in Florida, I’d known these blood relatives were out there, but there was no reason to think I would ever meet them.

A few years ago, my father eventually did meet his biological father, along with two uncles and an aunt, when they sought him out during a trip back to Ohio for his mother’s funeral. None of them use Facebook. I asked my dad if he recognized Rebecca Porter. He looked at her profile and said he didn’t think so.

I sent the woman a Facebook message explaining the situation and asking if she was related to my biological grandfather.

“Yes,” she wrote back.

Rebecca Porter, we discovered, is my great aunt, by marriage. She is married to my biological grandfather’s brother; she met him 35 years ago, the year after I was born. Facebook knew my family tree better than I did

“I didn’t know about you,” she told me, when we talked by phone. “I don’t understand how Facebook made the connection.”

It was an enjoyable conversation. After we finished the phone call, I sat still for 15 minutes. I was grateful that Facebook had given me the chance to talk to an unknown relation, but awed and disconcerted by its apparent omniscience.

How Facebook had linked us remained hard to fathom. My father had met her husband in person that one time, after my grandmother’s funeral. They exchanged emails, and my father had his number in his phone. But neither of them uses Facebook. Nor do the other people between me and Rebecca Porter on the family tree.

Facebook is known to buy information from data brokers, and a person who previously worked for the company and who is familiar with how the tool works suggested the familial connection may have been discerned that way. But when asked about that scenario, a Facebook spokesperson said, “Facebook does not use information from data brokers for People You May Know.”

What information had Facebook used, then? The company would not tell me what triggered this recommendation, citing privacy reasons. A Facebook spokesperson said that if the company helped me figure out how it made the connection between me and my great aunt, then every other user who got an unexpected friend suggestion would come around asking for an explanation, too.

It was not a very convincing excuse. Facebook gets people to hand over information about themselves all the time; by what principle would it be unreasonable to sometimes hand some of that information back?

The bigger reason the social network may be shy about revealing how the recommendations work is that many of Facebook’s competitors, such as LinkedIn and Twitter, offer similar features to their users. In a 2010 presentation about PYMK, Facebook’s vice-president of engineering explained its value: “People with more friends use the site more.” There’s a competitive advantage to be gained by being the best at this, meaning Facebook is reluctant to reveal what goes into its algorithm.

The caginess is longstanding. Back in 2009, users getting creepily accurate friend suggestions suspected that Facebook was basing the recommendations on their contact information—which they had volunteered when they first signed up, not realizing Facebook would keep it and use it.

Though Facebook is upfront about its use of contact information now, when asked about it in 2009, the company’s then-chief privacy officer, Chris Kelly, wouldn’t confirm what was going on.

“We are constantly iterating on the algorithm that we use to determine the Suggestions section of the home page,” Kelly told Adweek in 2009. “We do not share details about the algorithm itself.”

Not being told exactly how this tool works is frustrating for users, who want to understand the extent of Facebook’s knowledge about them and how deeply the social network peers into their lives. The spokesperson did say that more than 100 signals go into making the friend recommendations and that no one signal alone would trigger a friend suggestion.

One hundred signals! I told the spokesperson that it might be in the search giant’s interest to be more transparent about how this feature works so that users are less creeped out by it. She said Facebook had “in the name of transparency” recently added more information to its help page explaining how People You May Know works, an update noted by USA Today.

That help page offers a brief bulleted list:

People You May Know suggestions come from things like:

• Having friends in common, or mutual friends. This is the most common reason for suggestions

• Being in the same Facebook group or being tagged in the same photo

• Your networks (example: your school, university or work)

• Contacts you’ve uploaded

Depending on how you count them, the listed possibilities are roughly 95 signals shy of adding up to 100 signals. What are all the others?

“We’ve chosen to list the most common reasons someone might be suggested as part of People You May Know,” a Facebook spokesperson wrote in an email when asked about the brevity of the list.

Rather than explaining how Facebook connected me to my great aunt, a spokesperson told me via email to delete the suggestion if I don’t like it.

“People don’t always like some of their PYMK suggestions, so one action people can take to control People You May Know is to ‘X’ out suggestions that they are uninterested in,” the spokesperson wrote via email. “This is the best way to tell us that they’re not interested in connecting with someone online and that feedback helps improve our suggestions over time.”

Now, when I look at my friend recommendations, I’m unnerved not just by seeing the names of the people I know offline, but by all the seeming strangers on the list. How many of them are truly strangers, I wonder—and how many are connected to me in ways I’m unaware of. They are not people I know, but are they people I should know?

*Originally published on Gizmodo.

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How Women End Up Hurting Their Own Feelings

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A lot of times women get their feelings hurt when they’re dating someone and unfortunately, it may just be the woman’s fault. I know it’s happened to me before. I’ve set myself up for failure quite a few times all because I got ahead of myself.

I’ll meet a guy, decide that I really like him and that he should really like me. By our 3rd or 4th date I’ve already got our wedding planned and the colors of our newly decorated kitchen in my mind. I’ve even imagined what I would wear the first time I meet his parents and what his siblings might think of me. I’ve forethought how he would propose and what time of the year we were likely to be married based on the length of engagement.

And I know I’m not alone. A lot of women get hyper excited when they meet a guy that they think could be “the one”. They think about what kind of ring he’ll propose with, what their new last name will be, and the “perfect” little life that they’re going to live together. And why wouldn’t they? If you already know that you’re a good catch & you meet a guy who’s a good catch, where is the harm in thinking about your future together? While it may be a bit presumptuous, it’s natural to get excited about the prospect of love.

I happen to do this all the time. I have recently discovered that this is a way of me hurting my own feelings. Every time I get excited about a guy that I’ve just met, I am always expecting the best from him. I am expecting that he won’t break my heart, I’m expecting for him to be the one and I’m expecting that he will soon figure out that I’m the one for him. I know it doesn’t always happen like this, but this is what happens when logic meets emotion. So when things don’t happen that way, it means I have set myself up for failure.

When I daydream about my future with a man I barely know I am setting myself up for failure. The thing is, you don’t need a long time to know if you really like someone or if they’re a good fit for you, but all that daydreaming & fantasizing about your life together can end up hurting you if things don’t work out. It especially hurts when the man doesn’t even know how you much you liked him in the beginning. And this is exactly how women hurt their own feelings.

The question is how can I stop all of this? I can’t help it! I can’t help the fact that my brain takes things further then it should when I meet someone I really like. As much as I’d love to dial it back, I’m only able to do so after my feelings have been hurt.

Sometimes we create our own heartbreaks through expectations. So, ladies what do you do to NOT hurt your own feelings?

Why I Wish No One But My Own Father a “Happy Father’s Day”

For nearly the past 45 years, Father’s Day has become a national day of recognition for fathers across the country to celebrate, honor and sometimes even unite families who have a father figure in their lives. If you have a stepfather, grandfather, uncle or biological father, this coming Sunday most of us will be celebrating these special men in our lives. Whether it’s going out to eat, shopping or even the movie theatre, all day long we will all hear these 3 little words over & over again: “Happy Father’s Day!”

Unlike most people, I don’t go around wishing every father a “Happy Father’s Day”. For me, it seems so trite & such a cliché to wish every man I pass a Happy Father’s Day just because he’s a man. Who knows if he has children? Who knows if his children even appreciate him? Better yet, who knows if he’s a good father?

You see, the hard part about throwing out the phrase “Happy Father’s Day” to every man I see on Sunday is that I don’t know whether or not he is a good father. There is no way I can know what kind of father you are unless I’ve met your children or at the very least, the mother of your children. Making babies does not constitute a good father, no matter how many children you may have & no matter how much child support you may be paying. Even if you have been physically present for your children, it doesn’t necessarily make you a good father. There are many abusive and destructive dads out there who don’t deserve the recognition of Father’s Day.

You see, there is so much that goes into being a good dad. Were you there during everyday life events, not only the important ones? Do you have a good relationship with the mother of your children? After all, being a good dad is more than just how you treat your children, it also involves the type of example you set as a man overall. Were you financially responsible for your children for their entire childhood? Showing up every now & then might be easy for some men to do but for others spending quality time with their children might be like pulling teeth. Did you teach your children about life? Did you open up your world to them so they can see you being a man, not just a dad? Additionally, how do others regard you as a father when your children are around?

There is so much that goes into being a good dad. A mere 24 hours out of the entire year does not do good father’s justice. However, I look forward to celebrating my dad this year because of all that he means to me. My dad has been married to my mother for over 35 years and has been there for me since the day I was born. He had a strict policy on dating (he wanted me to wait until I was at least 40 – lol!), taught me how to save $0.10 from every dollar I earned and “dated” my mother even though they were already married so I could see a living breathing example of what true romance is. Whether I was going through my awkward pre-teen years or even now as an adult woman coming into her own, my dad was & is still here for me. So, the only person I wish a “Happy Father’s Day” is my own father. I know for certain what kind of father he is because I know what kind of person I turned out to be. My dad understood that the role of a good father doesn’t start with child support, nor does it end when your child turns 18. Instead, it’s about being a good man, a good husband, and then a good father.

Let’s face it, we don’t know whether or not a man is a good dad just because he has children. After all, just about anyone can father a child, but it takes an exceptional man to do the job well. Perhaps the phrase “Happy Father’s Day” shouldn’t be thrown around so casually, but instead reserved for the real men who deserve it.

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Hating Other People’s Kids Is Not A Crime

It’s my world too. Strollers don’t inherently have the right-of-way.

I was in love with Marion in that way you fall in love with your best friend. She’d pick me up like a pile of laundry and scrub me clean after every bad breakup, and there were many. She was my rock, she was the one friend I wasn’t embarrassed to introduce to my parents, she was my favorite person in the world… until she had her child.

Marion and I promised ourselves we wouldn’t turn into one of those bargaining-with-their-kids parents, one of those pushover parents, one of those newfangled spiritual let-your-kid-be- whoever-the-Goddess intended parents. Yes, we’d have kids, but we’d be better, smarter, and stricter. We wouldn’t be those people who would make other people feel embarrassed for us because we have rotten kids. Then, in different ways, we both failed to keep those promises. She became one of those parents, and I closed my baby factory forever.

After Marion married Phil, they tried desperately to have a child and after two years, they had Daisy. Marion’s pregnancy was unremarkable. Even her daughter’s first year didn’t raise any red flags. It wasn’t until Daisy’s second year that my friend Marion started showing signs of what I consider dysfunctional parenting.

Our friendship probably held steady for as long as it did because Marion and Phil moved to Missouri shortly after Daisy turned two. There wasn’t enough proximity to destroy our friendship. When I finally went to visit them, their daughter was already 4. I had missed the in-between years: the transition from Marion, my friend, to Marion, Daisy’s mom.

On my first day, I saw Daisy naked and playing with herself while watching TV. Daisy is “exploring herself,” Marion called it. I thought: OK, they don’t want to shame her. I get it. Masturbation is natural. It’s fine, I think.

My second day, I walked in to see Marion breast-feeding Daisy. Marion and Phil are very tall and Daisy had inherited their height. Seeing a child at her length sucking on Marion’s teat was like watching a Great Dane climbing a sapling. I thought: OK, breastfeeding is cool. Look away. Look away. Dear God, why can’t I look away?

The fifth day, Daisy allowed us to leave the house without throwing a fit. We went to a sushi restaurant. Twenty minutes into dinner, Daisy stripped off her clothes and ran through the restaurant, peeing, with Phil running after her pleading, “Daisy. Sweetheart. We don’t do that. We don’t do that,” in a voice that made Daisy “do that” even more. We were asked to leave by a woman who leered at me like it was my fault.

The rest of my 10-day visit didn’t go much better. When Marion finally dropped me off at the airport, I left the family of three and any desire to have kids in my rearview. I haven’t seen Daisy (now 8), Marion, or Phil since, except on Facebook.

I felt like such a horrible person for despising the kid until I stumbled upon Alfie Kohn’s Washington Post article in which he blames milquetoast-y modern-day parents for “raising a generation of undisciplined narcissists who expect everything to go their way.”

My friend and her husband aren’t bad people. They are among a demographic who find themselves victims of a cycle. Like the 5 Stages of Grief, I call this ‘The 5 Stages of Progressive Parenting’:

Denial. Knowing other people are staring at you and your screaming child, but pretending they’re not.

Anger. You’re outraged that other people want to come up to you and say “You have a horrible sushi-ruining kid.” Instead, they shake their heads or leave. Like a deadly fart, a bad child can clear a room.

Bargaining. The act of offering something for nothing. “If you are good, I’ll give you $5!” Or the time Marion said, “If you stop kicking Aleks, Mommy will make you cookies!” This tactic only works temporarily, if at all. With Daisy, “temporary” meant twenty minutes, or until she had finished her cookie. It can work permanently for losing friends, though.

Depression. Marion would sometimes look down-to-the-bone exhausted, her face damp from residual tears. She would smile when she caught me looking but we both knew she wanted to die some days.

Acceptance. Realizing that this is your life. Even after they go off to college, get married, have their own kids. This is your progeny, your legacy, and it’s forever. You are responsible for their beginnings until your ending, and you’re ok with that because you have to be. Forever.

Yes, Marion’s Daisy was the main reason I decided not to have kids, but she was not the only reason. My friends are at an age where they’re all having and raising children now — all spoiled monsters, the lot of them. Frankly, I know maybe two out of ten parents who have continued to be normal people who have successfully raised sweet, well-mannered kids, though I don’t want to hang out with them either.

When I tell people I would prefer not to be around kids or that I never want to have kids, they laugh uncomfortably. How can anyone hate kids? If those people are parents, they say I’m a bad person, or that I don’t know what I’m talking about, or I just don’t understand how nuanced the world of parenting is. What I know is this: It’s my world too. Strollers don’t inherently have the right-of-way. 

When a friend has a child, it’s a loss for the childless friend. Maybe the new parent feels the same. I’ve never asked. I have to admit, sometimes I wish a woman like Marion had been my mom. My mother had no problem disciplining me, a lot. Maybe I would’ve been a happier adult if I had been allowed to eat sushi naked in a restaurant while peeing on myself. Who knows?

Of course kids can’t get enough of me. Like cats, if you ignore them, they’ll want to sit on your lap. I think they can sense I don’t like them so they circle me trying to get me to change my mind. Sometimes, if I don’t think about Daisy or Marion, I almost do.

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*Originally published on Yahoo.