Culture

How Facebook’s Message Filtering System Stopped Me From Maybe Becoming An Olympian

Plenty of people find weird stuff when they stumble on their hidden messages folder. Usually not this, though.

When I stumbled on the ‘filtered’ folder of my Facebook messages in February, it was because I’d received a new type of alert I hadn’t seen before: a message request from a porny spam account, asking for permission to be let into my inbox.

A few clicks through a string of subfolders later and I’d uncovered a folder full of messages dating back to 2011. In my filtered messages, I found old messages from friends who had innocently used words like “naked” in their message, messages from spam accounts not so innocently using “naked” multiple times, and a few from people trying to track down different Laurens, who had stumbled on my account and hoped it was a fit.

And then there was a message from a lady named Megan, a sports scientist at the Queensland Academy for Sport. Her email was long and detailed, written formally, and didn’t use the word naked even once. She had written to me regarding a QAS program called ‘Prospecting for Gold‘.

Megan said she had seen that I was practicing competitive yoga at the time and was interested in talking to me about a transition into archery, a sport QAS thought had significant skills crossover and in which Australia had a shallow talent pool to draw from. The purpose of the Prospecting for Gold program was to seek talent to represent Australia in the Rio and Tokyo Olympics. Was I interested in possibly becoming a future Olympian? Please, get in touch.

The email had been sent February 17, 2014. When I found it nearly two years later on February 10, 2016, my first reaction was to turn to Google. I confirmed that Megan and Prospecting for Gold were indeed legitimate. It was, however, quite a bit too late for me to pick up a bow and set my sights on Rio.

Pictured: not me.

Facebook has always had a filtering system on messages but until recently it’s been close to hidden from users, and very hit and miss. The filters work to siphon spam messages from users’ inboxes and also limit messages received from people who aren’t connected already on Facebook. The platform is, after all, about connecting with friends rather than strangers, and the filters do their bit to ensure the strength of the brand.

In the past the filters would sometimes allow messages through from non-contacts that could have possibly been of interest, but what was and wasn’t allowed through appeared to be quite random. To counteract this problem, the “message request” system was put in place last October, allowing non-friends to alert users if they wanted to get in touch by message. But for some of us unknowing Olympic hopefuls, the change would come too late.

It’s impossible not to imagine what my life would have been like if I’d received Megan’s message. Having only tried archery once before at Year 11 school camp, it’s likely that my career as an archer would have been short lived. But still, as I lie in bed, waiting for sleep and dreaming about what life as an archer could have involved, the what-ifs creep in. I competed in gymnastics from age five to seventeen, which has surely lent me some degree of lasting fitness and coordination. That one time I did try archery at camp I’d managed to hit a balloon suspended from a swinging rope on my first shot, so the possibility that I am an extremely talented archer waiting to be discovered still remains.

I understand the need for the filtering system, and in some ways, I’m all for it. Like any online platform, Facebook is littered with spam accounts that would probably prompt my move away from using the platform altogether if they were able to contact me constantly. I’ve also found some vaguely stalker-ish messages in my filtered folder that I’m grateful Facebook has worked to protect me from.

But this isn’t a junk folder sitting neatly in an email inbox, easily accessible and with filters that make sense. These days, many Facebook users access their accounts predominantly by smartphone, on which the filtered messages folder is near impossible to access. It’s only been recently, as reports have come through about people finding out that they missed messages about friends who have passed away, or important job opportunities, that users have hopped back on desktops to find out what has been filtered.

Part of me finds it all a bit farcical, that we have so much angst about a system that we happily let mine our personal data, knowing that increasingly access to this data is provided to advertisers, and that more and more of what we see is strategically manipulated. And then I imagine what life might be like as a gold medal bearing national hero, knowing that forevermore I’ll only be able to wonder how majestic it feels to ride through a ticker tape parade thrown in my honour.

I’ll never know how close I would have gotten to wearing the green and gold in Rio this year. I’ve gone one way in life, beginning my career in creative writing and arts administration, and there isn’t a Gwyneth Paltrow version of me who checked her filtered messages earlier that I can watch going the other, bow in hand, wearing the mint pinstriped team uniform. But when Facebook celebrates the Rio Games this year with cartoon banners and hashtags, I’ll be watching my feed and thinking of her, and very carefully checking my messages.

Lauren Sherritt is a playwright and freelance writer based in Brisbane. Lauren’s work has been featured online at The Financial Diet, Birdee, LifeMusicMedia, lip magazine and Australian Stage.

Feature image via Facebook.