Facebook’s Year in Review Brings Painful Reminders for Some Users

Relying on algorithms isn’t always perfect, as a controversy that brewed this past weekend involving Facebook’s Year in Review feature illustrated.

DavidsYear650Relying on algorithms isn’t always perfect, as a controversy that brewed this past weekend involving Facebook’s Year in Review feature illustrated.

Jonathan Gheller, Facebook’s product manager for Year in Review, personally apologized to Web design consultant and writer Eric Meyer following the latter’s blog post in which he wrote about being reminded about the death of his daughter, Mashable reported.

Meyer wrote:

I know, of course, that this is not a deliberate assault. 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.

But for those of us who lived through the death of loved ones, or spent extended time in the hospital, or were hit by divorce, or losing a job, or any one of a hundred crises, we might not want another look at this past year.

To show me Rebecca’s face and say, “Here’s what your year looked like!” is jarring. It feels wrong, and coming from an actual person, it would be wrong. Coming from code, it’s just unfortunate. These are hard, hard problems. It isn’t easy to programmatically figure out if a picture has a ton of likes because it’s hilarious, astounding, or heartbreaking.

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 News 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.

And in a follow-up post, he added:

This post is probably going to be a little bit scattered, because I’m still reeling from the overwhelming, unexpected response to the last post. I honestly expected “Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty” to be read by maybe two or three hundred people over the next couple of weeks — all of the friends, colleagues and friends who are colleagues. I hoped that I’d maybe give a few of them something new and interesting to think about, but it was really mostly just me thinking out loud about a shortcoming in our field. I never expected widespread linking, let alone mainstream media coverage.

So the first thing I want to say: I owe the Year in Review team in specific, and Facebook in general, an apology. No, not the other way around. I did get email from Jonathan Gheller, product manager of the Year in Review team at Facebook, before the story starting hitting the papers, and he was sincerely apologetic. Also determined to do better in the future. But I am very sorry that I dropped the Internet on his head for Christmas. He and his team didn’t deserve it.

(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.)

Yes, their design failed to handle situations like mine, but in that, they’re hardly alone. This happens all the time, all over the Web, in every imaginable context. Taking worst-case scenarios into account is something that Web design does poorly, and usually not at all. I was using Facebook’s Year in Review as one example, a timely and relevant foundation to talk about a much wider issue.

Gheller said, as reported by Mashable:

(Year in Review) was awesome for a lot of people, but clearly, in this case, we brought him grief rather than joy. We can do better. I’m very grateful he took the time in his grief to write the blog post.

Readers: What did you think of Facebook’s Year in Review feature?