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Facebook Foes, and other social networking quirks

June 17, 2008 |  1:51 pm
Alex Pham's Facebook page

Facebook thinks Tom Ham and I should be friends. But we're not. In fact, I'm pretty sure he can't stand me.

I ticked off the guy more than five years ago, and we haven't spoken since then (more on that later). But he pops up with disquieting frequency on the "People You May Know" box at the right side of my Facebook page. Facebook compares your mutual friends to suggest connections with people you might not have thought to connect with. The program is called the Friend Finder.

But I call it the Foe Finder. Tom Ham appears there all the time. I don't really blame Facebook for causing me brief moments of anguish each time it throws up its postage-stamp-sized reminder. Tom and I do have 69 "friends" in common, many related to the video game industry that we both cover. The program is saying, "Look! You like all the same people, so this guy has GOT to be your soul mate!"

This seems to be a common issue among members of Facebook and other social networking services that use computer algorithms to help connect people. For example, LinkedIn, a professional networking site, looks through your online resume to suggest people who worked at the same company while you were employed there. Never mind that it might be the boss who fired you for bringing plants to your cubicle.

When machines do the matchmaking, funny things happen. An acquaintance in San Francisco kept getting paired up with a landlord who evicted his family for refusing to pay an outrageous (and illegal) $1,000 raise in his rent.

Then there are the people ...

... who are already on your friend list but turn out to be scheming snakes. One of my friends found out that a colleague had lied to him about a job opening. He'd gladly wipe this person from his Facebook page, but that would cause a minor scandal because the two have a zillion mutual colleagues.

Of course, you can also drop the nuclear Facebomb and ban individuals from seeing your profile. I did this once for an ex- whose very picture made me ill. But I've otherwise resisted pushing the red button just so I can see how this online social petri dish evolves.

Anyhow, back to Tom Ham and what I did to earn his disdain. A few years ago, I wrote a story for The Times about "playola" -- the junkets and trinkets that video game critics were regularly showered with by companies hoping for a favorable review. Tom was among the top reviewers in the field at that time, and I featured him in the story. He stopped talking to me after it ran. I imagine that my profile picture keeps appearing on his Friend Finder, which can't be much fun. I e-mailed him to ask him whether it does, and how he feels about it. Not too surprisingly, he didn't respond.

But I can see some benefits to this Foe Finder thing. An ex-boyfriend I hadn't talked to for more than 20 years found me on LinkedIn and asked to be in my network. I added him.

As one of my bona fide friends advised, "Keep your friends close, your enemies closer."

-- Alex Pham

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