Even after blocking an ex on Facebook, the platform continues to promote painful reminders
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This article was originally published by The Conversation. You can read it here.

Anthony Pinter, a Ph.D. student in information science at the University of Colorado Boulder, recently completed a study on people's experiences with upsetting and unexpected reminders of an ex on Facebook.

His team's findings are examples of algorithmic cruelty – instances in which algorithms are designed to do something and do it well, but end up backfiring because they can't fully grasp the nuances of human relationships and behavior.

How has social media made breakups more difficult?


Anthony Pinter: Breaking up with a loved one has always meant making difficult choices: who gets the couch, who gets the fridge, who gets the cat.

But before social media, once the messy details were sorted, it wasn't too difficult to create the physical, mental and emotional space that research has shown to help with the healing process. In the past, you could simply stop going to your ex's favorite coffee shop. You could box up photos and put them in storage.

Social media has complicated things. Platforms like Facebook are designed to encourage connecting with your network and reminiscing about the past. It recommends upcoming events, suggests people to add as friends, resurfaces old memories and photos and highlights what your friends are doing.

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But after a breakup, you probably don't want to be alerted about a new friend your ex has made on your news feed.

Nor do you want to see an old photo with your ex reappear as a "Memory." And with access to your ex's online life just a search and a click away, it's easy to succumb to forms of "Facebook stalking," in which you periodically check in on their profile to see what they're up to and whom they're hanging out with.

Not surprisingly, Facebook has been shown to prolong the healing process of a breakup. Conversely, you might also start to realize your ex has already moved on, which can be just as painful.

"Just block your ex," you'll hear people say. Why isn't this enough?

Pinter: First, blocking or unfriending isn't as simple as it sounds. It can be done in as little as three clicks. But once you've done it, it's hard to walk back from; if you ever decide to unblock someone or refriend them, social media platforms will often alert the ex that you've done so – which can send ambiguous signals and expectations.

But yes, platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have features meant to prevent these unwanted encounters – unfollow, unfriend or block. A few years ago, Facebook even developed a feature called Take A Break, which effectively mutes someone for a set period of time.

However, people are still seeing reminders of their exes on social media – even when they've actively taken advantage of features that supposedly prevent these encounters.

My colleagues and I conducted in-depth interviews with 19 people who had had an unexpected and upsetting reminder of an ex on Facebook.

One participant mentioned that the mother of an ex's new partner was suggested as a possible friend. Another saw their ex commenting on a mutual friend's post.

In one case, an old photo that Facebook resurfaced via the Memories feature – from a beach vacation the two had taken when they'd been a couple – didn't even include an image of the interviewee's ex. But being prompted to think about that vacation was upsetting enough.

What's really going on here?

Pinter: This is happening because the algorithms still don't fully understand humans.

While you can tell Facebook you don't want to see your ex anymore, the algorithm doesn't realize that this might also include peripheral reminders of your ex, like a photo of his or her best friend, or a comment he or she has made on a mutual friend's wall.

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Context matters, but algorithms often don't have the ability to understand it. Even though that photo from the beach might not have anyone in it, it's loaded with memories that you'd rather not think about.

In our work, we want to bring attention to what we call the "social periphery" – the satellites of a relationship, romantic or otherwise. Systems like Facebook are built to cultivate community, but the algorithms that undergird the system often rely on simplistic representations of people's experiences like "relationship status" or "blocked."

Features meant to prevent upsetting encounters in the wake of a breakup or other fraught events similarly rely on these simplistic settings, ignoring the realities of a social periphery.

To the algorithm, the suggestion of the ex's new partner's mother is a perfectly reasonable suggestion – you probably share mutual friends that alert some sort of internal metric. But a human would know better than to make that suggestion.

Why do these findings matter?

Pinter: Algorithms are becoming more integrated into our everyday lives, and social media isn't the only place where we're seeing these undesirable outcomes occur. For example, as people begin to rely more heavily on voice assistants like Siri or Alexa to send texts, we inevitably run into situations in which the programs mishear us and, for example, send a wildly inappropriate message to a boss or parent.

Our findings present a challenge for designers and developers: How can we create algorithms that are better attuned to the deep, lived experiences of the humans who will use these systems? It's unlikely that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. On Facebook, features like Take a Break or blocking can be seen as important steps. But it's clear that there's a lot more work to do.

Anthony Pinter is a Ph.D. Student in Information Science, University of Colorado Boulder



via Jules Lipoff / Twitter

Weronika Jachimowicz, 17, is getting a lot of attention for subverting people's expectations of who excels in high school. And that's exactly what she wants.

Jachimowicz was named New York's Mattituck-Cutchogue Union Free School District's 2021 salutatorian. Her yearbook photo next to valedictorian Luke Altman is going viral because of her dramatic Goth makeup and attire.

It all started when assistant professor and writer Dr. Jules Lipoff tweeted out a photo of the valedictorian and salutatorian he saw in a newspaper and it went viral. How many salutatorians have you seen that wear pentagram hoop earrings, a choker, and black devil horns?

The juxtaposition of her next to the bowtie-wearing Altman, makes the photo even more amusing.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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