With 2014 drawing to a close, many Facebook users logging in over the holiday season will have noticed Year-in-Review posts in their News Feed. For those not familiar with the feature, consider it as an algorithmically generated slideshow pulling together personal content which has seen the most engagement over the last 12 months. Once you’ve viewed it, you can customize it and share it with others.
While the feature may well raise a smile for many people as they take a look back over their year, the auto-generated sequence has left at least one Facebook user distraught after it included an image of his daughter who died in June following a battle with cancer.
‘Here’s what your year looked like’
Surrounding the photo of Eric Meyer’s young daughter, Rebecca, are illustrations of people dancing in a party atmosphere. At the top it reads, “Eric, here’s what your year looked like!”
Understandably upset at being confronted with the imagery, Meyer took to his blog to air his feelings in a post titled Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty.
In a measured and heartfelt piece, Meyer explains how Facebook’s Year-in-Review tool tripped up, highlighting a personal tragedy at what has to be a particularly difficult time of year for the web design consultant and writer.
“I know, of course, that this is not a deliberate assault,” Meyer wrote. “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.”
He continues, “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.”
Meyer said that to display an image of Rebecca’s face and say ‘Here’s what your year looked like!’ felt “jarring.” Making things worse is the fact that the review keeps appearing in his feed, “rotating through different fun-and-fabulous backgrounds, as if celebrating a death, and there is no obvious way to stop it.”
“It feels wrong, and coming from an actual person, it would be wrong,” he wrote. “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.”
Jonathan Gheller, product manager for Facebook’s Year in Review app, told the Washington Post he’d been in touch with Meyer to apologize for the upset caused.
“[The Year in Review feature is] awesome for a lot of people, but clearly in this case we brought him grief rather than joy,” Gheller told the Post.
He described Meyer’s feedback as “valuable” and said his team will be looking at ways to improve the feature to prevent similar incidents from happening again.
Meyer himself had some suggestions about how the social networking giant could make its Year in Review tool more sensitive to those who’ve had a tough 12 months. These include not pre-filling a picture unless the user has stated they’re happy to see images from the last year, and offering a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ option asking a user if they want to see a preview of the feature.
“If they say no, ask if they want to be asked again later, or never again. And then, of course, honor their choices,” Meyer wrote.