In May 2008, Facebook announced what initially seemed like a fun, whimsical addition to its platform: People You May Know.
“We built this feature with the intention of helping you connect to more of your friends, especially ones you might not have known were on Facebook,” said the post.
It went on to become one of Facebook’s most important tools for building out its social network, which expanded from 100 million members then to over 2 billion today. While some people must certainly have been grateful to get help connecting with everyone they’ve ever known, other Facebook users hated the feature. They asked how to turn it off. They downloaded a “FB Purity” browser extension to hide it from their view. Some users complained about it to the U.S. federal agency tasked with protecting American consumers, saying it constantly showed them people they didn’t want to friend. Another user told the Federal Trade Commission that Facebook wouldn’t stop suggesting she friend strangers “posed in sexually explicit poses.”
In an investigation last year, we detailed the ways People You May Know, or PYMK, as it’s referred to internally, can prove detrimental to Facebook users. It mines information users don’t have control over to make connections they may not want it to make. The worst example of this we documented is when sex workers are outed to their clients.
When lawmakers recently sent Facebook over 2,000 questions about the social network’s operation, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) raised concerns about PYMK suggesting a psychiatrist’s patients friend one another and asked whether users can opt out of Facebook collecting or using their data for People You May Know, which is another way of asking whether users can turn it off. Facebook responded by suggesting the senator see their answer to a previous question, but the real answer is “no.”
Facebook refuses to let users opt out of PYMK, telling us last year, “An opt out is not something we think people would find useful.” Perhaps now, though, in its time of privacy reckoning, Facebook will reconsider the mandatory nature of this particular feature. It’s about time, because People You May Know has been getting on people’s nerves for over 10 years.