Near, Far, Wherever You Are

How “People You May Know” has made the Stranger much stranger

Last year, while swiping through Tinder, I matched with a young lady whom I’ll call Emily. After a polite exchange, we made plans to meet up and swapped phone numbers, intending to plan a date over text. If you’ve never used Tinder, the app, in a welcome gesture towards privacy, will never reveal its users’ last names. So you can imagine my surprise when, later that evening, I logged onto Facebook and saw that Emily was the first suggestion in my list of “People You May Know,” her last name and job title — both hidden on Tinder, the former by design the latter by choice — plainly visible.

Emily and I never ended up meeting. But I thought of how brazenly Facebook outed information she’d elsewhere chosen to withhold when, months later, Instagram served me a very different kind of friend suggestion. A decade ago, when I was a senior in high school, “Jimmy,” a jilted ex-patient of my dad’s, began stalking our family. Over a period of months, verbal harassment escalated to threats of violence and we soon found ourselves accompanied by police escorts for the better part of a week. Jimmy was later incarcerated for related crimes and spent much of the next decade in prison. During this time, I largely forgot about him, much less interacted with him on a digital device. But where organic memory fails, data persists, even insists. And so, an old foe who, I soon discovered, continued to loudly nurse old wounds, resurfaced in the guise of an account Instagram was gleefully suggesting to “relevant” audiences — which, in its estimation, was me.

Quotidian though they are, People You May Know and its peers are some of the stranger spaces on social media

In a way, Instagram was right, though probably not in a way the service intended. Social networks are built on the idea that “connecting” is necessarily a social good, but it takes only one look at human life to know this is often false and that it is context, above all, that matters. Reconnecting with an old friend is serendipitous; being shown an old stalker can be a nightmare. For every joyful reunion PYMK facilitates, there’s also a case where the service plays a less welcome role: it routinely outs sex workers, for example, and suggests that psychiatrists’ patients friend each other, violating cherished medical norms. Data doesn’t — and, indeed, can’t — account for this kind of context, and so there’s little reason to think that tweaking the relevant algorithm will solve any of these problems.

These encounters with the arcane logic of recommendation were unnerving enough that I adjusted my privacy settings, delinked accounts, cleared cookies, and removed Facebook from my phone entirely, even as I knew full well that hiding my data trail would be functionally impossible. Given that actually taking control of my data double was a losing proposition, I resolved to spend some time thinking about the next best thing: who, exactly, is a Person We May Know — not as an individual, but a classification? And what does this classification, as both a social and a technical production, reveal about what it is to be “connected” (or not) in the age of social media?

If you’ve spent any time on social media, you’ve encountered some iteration of People You May Know. (Gizmodo’s Kashmir Hill wrote a comprehensive history of the tool on its 10 year anniversary last year.) I suspect that everyone has a story similar to mine. Quotidian though they are, People You May Know and its peers are some of the stranger spaces on social media, automatically populated by names familiar and not — in my case, a lineup of friends of friends, local bartenders, business acquaintances, graduate students from seminars past, names I recognize from media Twitter, and plenty of folks I’ve never met or heard of at all.

There are two explanations for why PYMK served up Emily and Jimmy to me, one computational and one sociological. The computational one is right, but unfulfilling. In the case of Emily, it’s not especially hard to reconstruct how Facebook arrived at the assumption that she and I had “met”: an algorithm checked my iPhone for new contacts and cross-referenced her number against its own database. When it found a match, the algorithm identified Emily as Someone Will Probably Knows. In Jimmy’s case, though, I simply cannot fathom how Instagram made this connection, despite quite a bit of legwork on my part to do so. He is not (and has never been) in my contacts, nor, after searching my email accounts, have I ever typed his name or even been forwarded an email about him. The more elaborate explanations I’ve entertained are nakedly conspiratorial, and so I’ve written Jimmy’s case off as a mystery that will remain unsolved, like a ship sunk in deepest waters.

A computational perspective on PYMK opens onto essential questions about context collapse, the fleeting nature of networked privacy, and the limits of data and algorithmic logic for ordering our social lives. But we might also think about PYMK from a sociological perspective, one attuned to the contingency of social life, past and present. Encountering “strangers” is, of course, as old as civilization itself. But the problem of stranger sociality was felt with particular acuity at the turn of the 20th century. For much of the preceding 150 years, peasants had been systematically dispossessed of their land and forced to take up wage labor in urban factories. In the process, North Atlantic society was re-centered on crowded urban spaces. No longer could one expect to recognize most of the people in one’s daily life or expect them to share the same values. In response, Émile Durkheim, a founder of what we now know as sociology, theorized anomie, the supposed degradation of norms that had once held societies together. The consequence of anomie, Durkheim reasoned, was widespread alienation and lack of a sense of purpose, a shift captured perfectly in the painter Fernand Léger’s La Ville (1918), in which a pair of downcast, faceless figures are swallowed up by cacophonies of cosmopolitan color.

These days, one hears echoes of Durkheim in the cottage industry of articles and books, popular and academic, that blame social media for our ills. We’re told that Facebook (etc.) is “disconnecting” us from one another or undermining our democracy. No doubt there’s some truth to the first point (as for the second, the erosion of democratic norms predates social media though Facebook’s disinformation problem surely doesn’t help). But to say that we’re being disconnected assumes from the outset that we know what it is to be “connected” at all, and that “connection,” whatever it may be, never changes. Connection, like all things, is subject to the ebbs and flows of history. The more interesting question involves asking what forms connection may take as times and technologies change, and how this in turn changes what it means to be connected (or not).

Meeting strangers once meant being one yourself — to acknowledge another human seeing you seeing them. Today, though, we do not know for whom we are the “People You May Know”

We might turn to a contemporary of Durkheim, Georg Simmel, for a somewhat more subtle perspective on the philosophical and social problems that People You May Know poses. For much of his career, Simmel was interested in understanding the complex relationships between individuals and their groups as part of a larger inquiry into how society “works.” Modernity was a mess, and yet life, however improbably, seemed to simply go on. How could that be? For Simmel, the answer lay in how social groups serve specific purposes that, in concert, add up to a functional society. And just as the actual individuals that PYMK recommends me are incidental to PYMK as a category, the names, personalities, and life histories of Strangers (and those to whom they were strange) weren’t of much interest to Simmel. Rather, it was what these groups did – and what that did for everyone – that mattered.

The inevitability of interacting with people you don’t know (and vice versa) in European modernity led Simmel to start thinking about what function strangers serve in a society. No doubt this was in part personal: as an assimilated Jew writing in fin-de-siècle Europe, Simmel was keenly aware of how it felt to simultaneously be an insider and an outsider. But defining what it felt like to be a stranger required defining what a stranger is in the first place. He most famously lays it out in a 1908 essay:

The Stranger is close to us, insofar as we feel between him and ourselves common features of a national, social, or occupational, or generally human nature. He is far from us, insofar as these common features extended beyond him or us and connect us only because they connect a great many people.

The ambivalence in this definition is crucial. For Simmel, the Stranger is not the “Other” — some external and oppositional identity against which you define yourself — nor is the Stranger simply one of the vast number of people in the world we do not know at all and will likely never meet. Rather, the Stranger is physically near but socially distant. The Stranger does not appear randomly, but has a reason for their proximity to a group, even as they are not strictly of that group. For Simmel, the quintessential Stranger was the trader, especially a travelling one. Though potential buyers likely do not know them personally, social necessity has brought them together based on roles (i.e. buyer and seller) that are, to some degree, pre-determined.

At the moment Simmel was writing, mass consumption was supplanting artisan production as a mark of status, and more and more people were increasingly dependent upon the open market. Underlying this shift were the vast transportation and communication networks (trains, telegraphs, etc.) that appeared in the 19th century, which made both markets and people more mobile than ever before. Strangers weren’t just a matter of urbanism, but mobility. Or, stated in somewhat different terms, Strangers are as much a technological production as they are a social one.

You don’t have to believe that social media is the root of all modern ills to acknowledge that constant connectivity is as disorienting a shift to contemporary social life as urbanization was to the long 19th century. But if electronic media represents the annihilation of space by time, then Simmel’s most basic formulation of the Stranger — “physically near, socially distant” — needs an addendum to bring the concept into the present world. To the common features that Simmel says make us feel near — “a national, social, or occupational” nature — we may add another: data. Simply put, the Stranger is now computationally near, but socially distant.

People We May Know, and really do know, can be categorized in one of two ways: those for whom the data trail is obvious (think Emily) and those for whom it isn’t (Jimmy). Those are easy enough. But we can also categorize people we don’t know along these lines: those strangers for whom the logic of recommendation is clear — for years, Facebook has been showing me a profile that happens to have the same name of someone I know offline — and those for whom it’s simply a mystery.

The latter category could go by another name: Strangers, in Simmel’s sense of the term. The appearance of “random strangers” in our Facebook feeds may feel like pure coincidence. Yet randomness is not a quality of things, but a relation between them. When we call something “random,” it’s another way of saying that there’s a logic of causality that we simply do not see: the so-called “black box” of Facebook algorithms. But there is a reason — however arcane, tortured, and obscure — that a handful of Facebook profiles out of billions are selected for your consideration. “People You May Know looks at, among other things, your current friend list and their friends, your education info and your work info,” wrote Facebook in its introduction of the tool in 2008. “Among other things” is a permissive category, and anecdotal evidence suggests it includes everything from location, old emails, phone numbers, text message histories, and off-platform data that Facebook purchased from third-party brokers. But no matter what kind of apologia Mark Zuckerberg peddles to horrifyingly uninformed congresspeople, Facebook is not a community: it’s a database.

Facebook has every reason to tell you (or, really, create) Who You May Know – to commit this small investment of data and screen space in hopes that a new connection, a new data point, will be made

That data is the foundation of what it is to be computationally near, and it exists regardless of physical proximity (or, more accurately, physical proximity is subsumed as one data point among many). And while I don’t think that changes what a Stranger is, it does point to a shift in how Strangers are made, just as urbanization did more than a century ago. What’s more, if we take “socially distant, computationally near” seriously, it changes just who gets to be a stranger at all. When we ask ourselves “why am I being recommended this person I’ve never met?” we implicitly acknowledge that the recommendation is rooted in some unseen commonality between “us” — or, really, our respective data doppelgängers. That is an invitation to reflection, a chance to imagine how we are positioned in the data flows we call cyberspace. What is revealed when we seek this cause — about our Stranger, about us, and the ways we may be bound? What does that say about our world?

Unlike Stranger sociality of yesteryear, though, encountering strangers no longer carries the symmetry it once did. Just as it is impossible to touch without being touched in return, meeting strangers once meant being one yourself — to acknowledge another human seeing you seeing them. Today, though, we do not know for whom we are the “People You May Know.” Despite our best efforts, the flotsam of our personal data are mere whitecaps floating atop oceans of data, currents for which only Facebook has the charts and going to places no map but theirs can ever truly see. When I look through my “People You May Know,” I can do a surprisingly decent job of piecing together why these are my Strangers and what, in turn, that says about what Facebook thinks about me. (Namely, that I spend a lot of time on the edges of media Twitter.) Asked to imagine to whom I am a Stranger, though — to define where, and on what winds, my data persona is carried — I am lost at sea.

The common cause between urbanism and the worst, most invasive practices of social media is (what else) the demands placed upon individuals and organizations by the capitalist system. Urbanism followed certain economic imperatives — dispossess the rural poor and make them take up wage labor in cities — and so do social media companies. “Friends” create content, content creates engagement, engagement creates data, and data creates value, sold back to you by the alchemical process of ad targeting. Accumulation by dispossession, as it turns out, works just as well when attention, not land, is its currency. What’s more, as social media scholar danah boyd pointed out in an extraordinarily prescient blog post days after Facebook introduced News Feed in 2006, it’s not just you who will expose your data — it’s also your friends. Facebook has every reason to tell you (or, really, create) Who You May Know – to commit this small investment of data and screen space in hopes that a new connection, a new data point, will be made.

This is not a conspiracy, but a set of tendencies that come as a result of Facebook pursuing its fiduciary obligations to shareholders. Like all platforms, Facebook has never been content to merely be a product in the world, nor, based on its revenue model, can it even afford to. Rather, platforms have omnibus ambitions: they aspire to organize life itself – the good, the bad; the simple and the strange – in their own image and according to their own logic. “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” Facebook’s most recent mission statement reads, positioning itself as a silent, even benevolent actor as it pursues what very nearly amounts to world domination.

Put differently, there can always be more Facebook. Every sentence, every identity, every transaction, every event that is not facilitated through Facebook’s own services is, strictly speaking, value lost for the lords of Menlo Park. It was only a matter of time before Facebook shifted from letting you categorize who you “know” through Friending to defining who you could know through its ever-expanding map of all that is social. Just as our friends became Friends™, our strangers became Strangers™ – just one more emergent aspect of social life now subsumed by and articulated through social media services. Strangers were once bonds waiting to mature. And they still are, in a sense; the question is for whom.

Will Partin is featherless biped with broad nails and access to the internet. He researches labor, technology, and culture.