Opinion
10:25 am
Wed May 28, 2014

Does this post make me look fat?

 

Credit Tamar Charney

Facebook has decided I have a weight problem – a big weight problem.

It's been helpfully suggesting diet pills, plus-sized swimsuits with tummy-control panels, and affirming articles about body image as I apparently struggle with the motivation to battle my obesity.

The thing is I'm petite, not plus

On one hand, I find it perversely funny that all-knowing Facebook somehow got the wrong idea about my weight. But on the other hand, it is a disturbing glimpse into the future, as more of what we see and read online is customized for us by computer algorithms.

Facebook and many other media outlets are increasingly relying on systems that predict what interests you, based on your online behavior and other information they've gleaned about you. Even if you and I have all the same Facebook friends, what you see on Facebook is different from what I see. Major media outlets like Huffington Post and The New York Times are also headed in this direction. At some point I wouldn't be surprised if Michigan Radio does the same thing.

Because it works

The more customized we make things for you, the more you use our stuff. Sounds smart, right?

Until the algorithms get it wrong, or don't quite get it right, which might be even more subversive.

It didn't take much for me to realize Facebook guessed my weight grossly wrong. But what about the more subtle mistakes? The errors that edit out stories that actually would interest us, but it isn't obvious to us that anything is amiss. Just slowly and subtly, what we see is based on an incorrect assumption until slowly and subtly our view on the world is shifted.

Sins of algorithmic omission

Michigan Radio's underlying editorial philosophy for our state news coverage is that we can all better understand the challenges and successes in our own lives and communities when we can see how they fit into the bigger statewide story. What happens in one place, tends to happen somewhere else, too.

At some point, perhaps we'll know you live in Grand Rapids and like stories about science, or that you live in Ann Arbor and like to go fishing. But then will you still see the stories about Detroit and the DIA's art collection? Or will you even find out about a new law that will affect your kids if the algorithms somehow didn't know you had children? Will you still get that full picture that connects the dots between our lives and the bigger picture?

Ultimately, will we care as much about each other and our neighbors when everything is tailored to our lives and whims?

Facebook doesn't fit me right

I've been inadvertently learning about the challenges you might deal with if you are overweight. I have a new appreciation for what that is like.

But, what am I not seeing in my Facebook feed as it presumes my interests and battle with obesity? I have no idea. Facebook is making those decisions about what I might want to know about, not me.

I don't know how to drop those extra 200 Facebook pounds and see the world again from a thinner perspective. But it is going to take more than pills and a tummy control swimsuit to make up for an unbalanced media diet and not enough mental exercise.