At the beginning of the school year, we do library orientation. One of the groups study and present on Internet tracking. They learn not only about data mining, but also how companies like Facebook and Google use your past activity to determine what turns up in your feed or results. The companies show you what they think you want to see to keep you coming back. The problem is that what they think you want to see may not be what you actually want to see. It may not be what you need to see.
Today an old friend, the son of friends of my parents, someone I have known and been close to for a long time, posted on Facebook about the death, at 39, of a woman named Karen. I was Facebook friends with Karen as well. We had a number of mutual friends starting in high school. After college, when we were both in grad school, we spent a summer working together at a standardized test grading factory. We ate lunch together and took walks on our breaks and hung out together outside of work a couple of times.
I’m not even sure when the last time I saw her was. It might have been that summer, but I kind of think it was more recently, perhaps at a party, or a concert.
My first thought when reading my friend’s remembrance of Karen and learning of her death was that it was drugs. Even though I knew that she had been working successfully as a chemist for many years, and had many years of recovery behind her, I assumed she had relapsed.
I was wrong. Scrolling through her Facebook page, which is still active, I realized that she had been fighting cancer for a while. There was even a page set up to offer her prayers, support and words of encouragement.
Karen and I weren’t close. I am not devasted by her death, but I am certainly sad about it.
I am frustrated that I didn’t know she was sick. I might have written her a letter, or sent some flowers or even tried to see her when I visited my parents in the town where she lived. I would have at least sent her a message and told her that she made that summer we worked together better for me.
Perhaps I count on Facebook more than I should. Perhaps it makes me feel more connected to people than I actually am. I enjoy being in touch with cousins and old friends, seeing pictures of their kids and hearing about their lives. When a college classmate starred in the movie Old–Fashioned, I encouraged lots of friends and family members to go see it even though I had not seen the actress for many years.
I am not someone who is Facebook friends with everyone I’ve ever met. I have about 125 Facebook friends, mostly people I went to school with. There is no one on my list who could be dying without my wanting to know about it.
People don’t generally post on Facebook, “Hey, y’all, it looks like I’m terminal.” If I had really still been friends with Karen, I would have known she was sick. But there were signs on Facebook. I didn’t ignore them. They never showed up in my feed.
I admit having a tendency to click on news articles about libraries and schools. I admit that I like pictures of cute children and posts about the funny things that they say. Karen worked in a lab and had no children, and perhaps Facebook’s algorithm decided I didn’t care so much about her life.
I am sorry it took her death for her to wind up in my newsfeed.