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Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
"Look. I'm sick of you and you obviously loathe me. But Facebook seems to think we still have something, so what say we give it another go?"
Helen Popkin
updated 7/2/2009 10:58:01 AM ET 2009-07-02T14:58:01

A while back, Jennifer Bates and her boyfriend of about three years had a less-than-amicable break up. It’s cool though. These things happen. Jennifer’s a big girl. She got over it. The Indiana resident moved on. Facebook, it seems, did not.

Imagine Jennifer’s surprise two weeks ago when, first thing in the morning, she logged onto her Facebook account to find the social network site had a fresh name and profile photo of someone she “might know.” It was her ex — holding a baby. The baby he had with the woman he had been seeing behind her back. “I freaked out,” Jennifer said.

Of course, maybe you don’t need to imagine Jennifer’s surprise because, like Relámpago Negro, something uncomfortably similar happened to you, too.

“One of the suggestions that Facebook keeps throwing at me includes the wife of my ex-boyfriend ... along with his brother and his in-laws,” the Tennessee resident told Technotica.

This phenomenon is fairly unsettling for many users who’ve noticed in recent weeks that Facebook’s once laughably obscure friend suggestions are suddenly downright inappropriate.

Why, it’s enough to make the technologically paranoid imagine that Facebook’s overly tweaked algorithms have developed a HAL-like sentience and, upon reviewing your profile, sense something unfinished between you and that person with whom you’ve grown, for whatever darn good reason, out of touch — a relationship that can, and in Facebook’s opinion, should be salvaged.

"Very ‘Big Brother-ish,’ ” said creeped-out Facebook user Jennifer Smith of Tampa Bay, Fla. “Men I chatted with via e-mail or went out with once or twice keep coming up as suggested friends. How on Earth is that OK?” Jennifer told Technotica via e-mail.

It seems the answer is whole lot duller than our jarred emotions would have us believe. Facebook is not evolving into the official Pushiest Mom on the Internet, nor is the company attempting to extend your user time by chumming social drama among the increasingly prescient 40-something members of the site.

According to Facebook spokesperson Brandon McCormick, the reappearance of those you may or may not wish to forget is all to do with the most minor of Web site “tweaks” and nothing more.

“One of the things we’ve started to do recently is using some of the space on the right-hand side (of the screen) not only for advertising, but other relevant content,” McCormick told Technotica via telephone. Defining official Facebook corporate speak, McCormick added: “Friend suggestions are relevant content.”

But why is Facebook suggesting Jennifer’s ex and his offspring? It all has to do with sharing e-mail contacts.

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Remember when you signed up for Facebook and you had the opportunity to share your e-mail account with the social networking site so it could help you find other people on Facebook you might know in say, the corporeal world?

Well, even if you don’t remember, you did have the opportunity. And even if you chose not to share, somebody you were friendly with way back then, somebody who had your e-mail in their e-mail account, maybe did.

Now, with those recent tweaks McCormick spoke of, those e-mail contacts are starting to “surface.” Now, instead of just those inappropriate ads offering to help you with that “muffin top”  or “Christian Singles” for your agnostic self, you’re also getting friend suggestions from someone’s long forgotten e-mail contacts  —whether you’re still friends with that person or not.

Facebook survival guide for awkward adults

So this latest freaky Facebook development is pretty simply explained, but still annoying to plenty, such as Lark Balon, who complained, “If I have to see a picture of my ex-husband one more time I'm going to shoot myself.” And while Lark assured Technotica she spoke only in humorous hyperbole, McCormick points out there is never any need for anything even half so drastic.

“To be clear, there are a few ways to make sure people you don’t want to appear in your friend suggestions don't show up again," he said. "Click the ‘X’ next to the icon, and it will stop them from reappearing in friend suggestions. You can also opt out of the contact importer entirely in the Privacy Center. It’s pretty easy.”

It is easy to opt out, or click an “X” to never again see those you’d prefer to never again see. Still, it’s interesting to note how this recent “tweak” has played upon the minds of those unsettled by the suggestions.

And what about those not as grounded as the Jennifers, Relámpago and Lark —those 16-year-olds, in either chronological or emotional age, who see this sudden suggestion of befriending a long-lamented ex as a sign from the Fates?

While your sane friends are trying to pull you away from the photo album of what could have been, Facebook via its “tweak” is now the bad-advice-doling pal every recently dumped loser doesn’t need. “Hey, you should totally call him. You never know. There’s still hope. Why don’t you put down that Häagen-Dazs and give him a call!”

Thanks Facebook. Thanks a lot.

Friend Helen A.S. Popkin's on Facebook before Facebook makes the suggestion ... or follow her on Twitter.

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