The People We Run Past

Delphine Ménard ≈
5 min readSep 30, 2015


Algorithms In Social Media And Real Life

Rue de Vaugirard / Boulevard Pasteur, Paris. — Frédérik Vuille — CC-BY-SA 2.0

This summer I went to my highschool 26th reunion in the US. I spent a week there, and what I took away with me is the amazing feeling of having *met* people. Yes. Not seen people again, but really having met people, new people. Of course there were those I kept in touch with over the years. And it was wonderful to see them again, especially in that context. But what I found profoundly moving and extremely fascinating was to talk to people I had never talked to while at school and spending hours exchanging with them as if we had been friends for ever. I don’t think this really has to do with us changing over the years (although I have no scientific evidence to that), and suddenly finding something to talk about, I think it is serendipity. Chance, if you will. Along with different circumstances, changed environment and different priorities.

You have to realize that that highschool was special, as we were only 200 people, from 80 nationalities. It was a boarding school located in the middle of nowhere so there was little other to do than actually talk to people. Still, in the course of two years, you can’t talk to everyone and even if you do, you can’t keep the same depth of conversation with all 200. It is the third time I go to a reunion, and each time I leave amazed by all the people I missed then, while we were a stairway away from each other and who I get to meet now, ten or fifteen or twenty-five years later.

This is a feeling I have also had thanks to the internet. Social media has its downsides and others will say that it kills real relationships. The truth is, thanks to Facebook especially, I have “met” people whom I never thought I would have something in common with, or be interested in further than the thing that brought us together in the first place.

José Martín — CC0

I have to say that I am quite liberal with my Facebook “friending” and I will add anyone I had once a good interaction with. This means that my Facebook “friends” are not all friends in the real world sense of the term, but might be work colleagues, people I met at a conference or people I had once a good conversation with. I will pass on Facebook’s algorithm and its probably keeping wonderful people away from my timeline, to dwell on the discoveries I have made.

One example is that of a woman who once was my boss. Quite remotely actually, she was not my direct boss and our interactions were limited, so our relationship was really not much more than a work relationship, we’d say hi to each other in the corridor. I “befriended” her a few years back on Facebook, and her posts have appeared on my timeline thanks to the unfamous algorithm. Through them I have developed the impression (note the not being so sure) that I have gotten to know her, and the impression that we have missed an opportunity to know each other better. I might even act on that at some point, and send a letter, after all, it’s my trademark. What this knowledge brings is unknown, but I enjoy the realm of possibilities it opens.

Another example is that of a woman I worked with about 15 years ago. We had one of these friendships that come with common toil through the hardship of events. We got along, had a few nice conversations, met even outside of work 5 years down the line. However, we became real friends much later, as I stumbled upon her blog through a Facebook post and became an avid reader. A few (real) letters and whatsapp messages later, I want to say that we have become extremely close and that I have the internet to thank for it. Had she not shared her blog, our friendship would probably have been one of those you recall fondly but which does not go beyond “I knew a person once”.

These are two samples, but there’s this guy I worked with who posts amazing photos and whom I never knew was so talented, another woman met at a conference whose posts have enlarged my scientific horizon on particular subjects, and of course this other guy whom I’ve loved without knowing why (because he could be a real pain in real life), but who through his Facebook Posts actually gave me tangible reasons to.

It is a strange feeling to discover the different faces of someone you weren’t particularly close to and to think: “oh, this is is interesting, I would never have thought this was important to them”. There is something of being a voyeur, of course, and intruding into someone’s life when they really didn’t invite you to do so. I take getting to know people through social media as a means, not as an end in and of itself. To me it’s a means to find out who the humans are behind the virtual selves. I really appreciate the opportunity to delve into relationships in a different kind of way. What they decide to share is an indication of who they might be, what drives them, what makes their life terrible or worthwhile. While some think that Facebook is an excuse to not talk to people in real life, a feeling that I can understand and even relate to, I realize that to me it has also been an opportunity to get to know people better.

I am aware that people only choose to share one side or another of their lives and that what I see on my timeline is truncated at best, but don’t we all, depending on the circumstances? What I will say to a stranger in a bar or to a best friend in the dead of the night will vary depending on how my day was, what occupies my mind at the time the conversation takes place. I’ll even go so far as to say that I have my own internal algorithm dictating what I give or what I take in a particular interaction.

As long as I’m conscious of that bias though, I like the idea that social media interactions have allowed me to pause and be interested in some of the people who only crossed my life as I ran past. My takeaway is, if you look for the humans behind the posts, you might be in for cool discoveries.



Delphine Ménard ≈

I do change, because change is the only constant. A local of many places, I come from experience. I'm in it for the people. |