Does Facebook think I know you? That depends. What color is your skin?

I don’t think anyone knows exactly what algorithms Facebook uses, including the method that generates the “People You May Know” list of friend recommendations. That list always seems to consist of a few folks with whom I share mutual friends, and then a whole lotta seemingly random other individuals. Recently something noticeable has changed in that list.

The random faces used to be almost entirely those of (seeming) white people. Since Ferguson, the “do-you-know-so’n’so” faces are exclusively those of (seeming) black people.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images*

I still don’t know enough about the calculations involved to draw any meaningful conclusions about this shift, though I can imagine plausible explanations ranging from the “well, duh!” to the more sociologically inquisitive. What I do know is that I have been using FB as one key source for finding thoughtful articles^ about events in Ferguson, the extra-judicial killings of Mike Brown and other Black American women and men (and girls and boys), and the history of police & other state brutalities against black and brown bodies. These form the bulk of the links that I have clicked on, or saved to click on later.

I haven’t shared most of these articles, “liked” many of them, or otherwise made Facebook-public my on-going engagement with these issues. I am still working through what form I want that engagement to take–what actions I am willing and able to commit to in response, with my own privileged white self and body. I want my response to be something I enact well beyond hashtags and Facebook posts.

Because the need is so great.

Because the need is so personal.

For me. For us all.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images*

No matter what Facebook’s algorithms are telling it now, the truth is the majority of my friends–and perhaps my likely future friends as well–are white. I’m hardly alone in my experience of the social “sorting” that results in this level of racial isolation. (The Washington Post had a quite colorful infographic about this phenomenon just last week, in a blog post titled, “Three quarters of whites don’t have any non-white friends.”)

I’m not saying I’m fully comfortable about this, nor that I couldn’t take greater effort to make myself a part of diverse and coalitional groups. (To be clear, I don’t mean foisting intimacy on individuals in some act of racial grotesquery: “Hi! You look Other–wanna hang out?”) Rather, it is always incumbent on me to ensure that I am listening to people whose experiences challenge my own perceptions. That I am making space for the voices of those less well-positioned structurally than I am, to make themselves heard in the halls of power.

Sadly, I suspect that Facebook’s algorithm is reflecting a broader social truth: any ongoing attention to the issue of state-sanctioned savagery and violence against America’s black citizens does mark me as someone likely to have an overwhelming preponderance of black friends. As most likely to be African-American myself. Because if I were white, odds are I wouldn’t still be looking.

That social equation is one that needs to change. By any algorithm necessary.

Howard University students. Photo posted to Twitter by Megan Sims (@The_Blackness48)
Howard University students. “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Photo posted to Twitter by Megan Sims (@The_Blackness48)

* Scott Olson is a Getty staff photographer who went to Ferguson to document events. Oh, and he got arrested while there too. These photos and their stories (as well as more of Olson’s work) can be found here.

^ I’m not going to provide a link list, but I do want to h/t where on Facebook I’ve been getting most of this reading material from: The Nation Magazine, Colorlines, and especially Son of Baldwin (who–if you’re not following already–you really should be. Like, right now. I’ll wait. Come back and thank me later.)

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