Facebook has apologized for an algorithm on its “Year In Review” post that includes lots of events users would rather forget.
If you’ve checked your Facebook page recently, you’ve probably seen a year-end post from a friend that goes through the various things that happened to them during 2014. A wedding perhaps. A few parties. A graduation or the like. All of the slideshows have the same headline: “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.”
Sadly, not everything that happens in life is fun and pleasant. One user, Eric Meyer, lost his daughter to brain cancer on her sixth birthday. His slideshow included pictures of her. And an ad not only included her face, but also clip art.
This inadvertent algorithmic cruelty is the result of code that works in the overwhelming majority of cases, reminding people of the awesomeness of their years, showing them selfies at a party or whale spouts from sailing boats or the marina outside their vacation house.
…Where the human aspect fell short, at least with Facebook, was in not providing a way to opt out. The Year in Review ad keeps coming up in my feed, rotating through different fun-and-fabulous backgrounds, as if celebrating a death, and there is no obvious way to stop it. Yes, there’s the drop-down that lets me hide it, but knowing that is practically insider knowledge. How many people don’t know about it? Way more than you think.
To Facebook’s credit, Jonathan Gheller, the product manager for Facebook’s “Year in Review” app, contacted Meyer personally to apologize for the algorithm. He also says they’re coming up with ways to improve it so this won’t happen again. In fact, Meyer was so moved by the apology he went back to his site and apologized to Facebook.
“But I am very sorry that I dropped the Internet on his head for Christmas. He and his team didn’t deserve it,” he writes. “(And yes, I’ve reflected quite a bit on the irony that I inadvertently made their lives more difficult by posting, after they inadvertently made mine more difficult by coding.)”
Mistakes are going to happen. And when they do, there’s going to be some amount of backlash and controversy. But this actually ended in a way that most companies should hope for. A devoted user aired a grievance and got a prompt and personal apology from the company about the issue. As a result, the user is rethinking the whole problem as well.
So if we have to end the year with one (or two) final apologies, at least these aren’t as bad as they could have been. And, of course, we’re wishing Mr. Meyer and his family all of the best after a devastating loss.