What getting engaged taught me about Facebook

He’s tweeting with the other hand.

In subtle ways, the media all around us reinforce social structures. Some might argue media help define them. I was reminded of that in a big way the other week, when I was lucky enough to get engaged to the lady I love. The night after she said yes, I was browsing Facebook and thought, “wouldn’t it be cool to change my relationship status?” I figured it would have to confirm with my fiancee before it formally published anything. I figured it’d be a small change that only some people would see. I figured it’d be no big deal.

Boy was I wrong. Instantly, people with whom I’d not spoken in years began liking and commenting, her friends did the same, and people with whom I wasn’t even connected on Facebook were chiming in (in all cases Facebook told me how they were able to see the post, which is a really comforting feature). Having bought a few Facebook sponsored stories in my time, I knew what had happened: the Newsfeed algorithm decided this was an event important enough in my life that not only did every friend need to see it, but it also needed to be at the top of everyone’s feeds. A quick login to my fiancee’s profile confirmed it – the secret was out, in a big way.

This revealed to me an interesting wrinkle in our quest to have Facebook be an interactive timeline of our lives: I’m not allowed to tell Facebook how important something is, short of setting global privacy preferences. In its quest to hook users into the never ending barrage of updates on the Newsfeed, the algorithm gets to decide what on my timeline is most entertaining (read: emotionally significant) to other users, even when that decision has implications beyond just what others are engaging with on the platform. Why does Facebook get to think marriage is so important? What if I were one of the many people who fall madly in love, but never wanted to get married? What if I were gay and my state hadn’t passed marriage equality, but my partner and I had made the same pivotal decision to spend our lives together?

Now I want to know what else Facebook gives automatic preferential treatment to. New babies seem an obvious one. What about breakups and relationship confirmations for kids in high school and college? What about a post declaring a major victory in a task someone has been working on for a long time?

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