Algorithms are essentially thoughtless.
December 25, 2014 9:46 PM   Subscribe

Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty: Author and Web design consultant Eric Meyer lost his daughter Rebecca to a brain tumor earlier this year, as mentioned previously on the Blue--or in this case the Purple. At the year's end, Facebook's Year in Review app has been sending him ghastly reminders of this recent history with an auto-populated, cheerily decorated slideshow featuring pictures of his dead daughter. Mediating on the influence of such algorithms in our lives, he writes: To call a person “thoughtless” is usually considered a slight, or an outright insult; and yet, we unleash so many literally thoughtless processes on our users, on our lives, on ourselves.
posted by Cash4Lead (83 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
I didn’t go looking for grief this afternoon, but it found me anyway, and I have designers and programmers to thank for it. In this case, the designers and programmers are somewhere at Facebook.
[...]
Where the human aspect fell short, at least with Facebook, was in not providing a way to opt out.


Always true.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:54 PM on December 25, 2014 [9 favorites]




It's almost like he was expecting something other than a bitter, dehumanizing experience when he elected to share his intimate lifestyle data with the world's largest and least scrupulous data-mining conglomerate.
posted by clarknova at 9:56 PM on December 25, 2014 [39 favorites]


To add to the bitter irony; FB makes ad $$$ from their thoughtless, tasteless, and predictably outrageous behavior. On balance, if Facebook disappeared tomorrow, there would be a 30 day withdrawal period, after which few would mourn its demise. Facebook sucks!
posted by Vibrissae at 10:03 PM on December 25, 2014 [13 favorites]


It's almost like he was expecting something other than a bitter, dehumanizing experience when he elected to share his intimate lifestyle data with the world's largest and least scrupulous data-mining conglomerate.

This is actually not the situation in which you say something that sounds kind of like "serves you right for being on facebook."
posted by automatic cabinet at 10:23 PM on December 25, 2014 [130 favorites]


Facebook decided this would be a great time to remind me that my dog is dead, as if I needed another reminder. I cannot even imagine what others like the Meyers are going through.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 10:26 PM on December 25, 2014 [3 favorites]


It's not nearly at the same level, but the picture Facebook chose to headline my year is of a sad little house in the middle of a depressing industrial park. The caption was "I think I've found the most depressing part of town."

Thanks a lot, Facebook.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 10:27 PM on December 25, 2014 [20 favorites]


Meyer did a great job of identifying the cause and proposing a simple fix. It is actually amazing that no one at FB thought enough about this before they implemented it. Two minutes of thinking about all the possible outcomes would have prevented this. Sometimes really smart people can act really dumb.
posted by 724A at 10:29 PM on December 25, 2014 [16 favorites]


My sister had a similar experience; her boyfriend died right before Christmas, and the last picture she posted before it generated the Year box was the post about his death, complete with their picture, which they used as the header.
posted by tavella at 10:41 PM on December 25, 2014 [2 favorites]


The abstract method in which you can generally induce smart people to be dumb, in my experience observing people at several top CS and math departments and in a bunch of startups and Silicon Valley companies, is time pressure.

I would bet $10 that they thought this up like 5-10 days ago and shipped it right before deadline and they were like "hey! we can get the design and code done quick! that's good, right? let's ship it to 1/6 of all humanity on Christmas"
posted by curuinor at 10:54 PM on December 25, 2014 [11 favorites]


When I saw that my friend's smoldering remains of her car were in her post, (it caught on fire in her driveway, but all kids and valuables made it out fine,) I thought about a friend who recently lost her sister and whose father had a major stroke this year, and the other two families I know with kids with major medical issues. And the friend with depression who visited family, only to come home to find a close friend committed suicide and that some who would be at the wake wished it had been her instead. How sad this would make them to be reminded of the sad and bad times.

And when I read Eric Meyer's page, I realized it was much worse than I had first thought, due to the fact it keeps coming back and asking for approval. So very thoughtless for these people who deserve our empathy and sympathy!
posted by 101cats at 11:01 PM on December 25, 2014 [5 favorites]


People post bad things on Facebook? Don't they know it's supposed to be an infinite Christmas letter filled with humblebrags about how awesome your life is?
posted by benzenedream at 11:11 PM on December 25, 2014 [12 favorites]


Yeah, this time of year FB is just a sadness factory. I try to avoid it like the plague.
posted by nevercalm at 11:31 PM on December 25, 2014 [3 favorites]


Yep, that happened (to a much lesser extent) to me as well this year. It turns out that if you tell a bunch of people on the internet that your cat died, they will respond in great number and make it your most active post--and then fb will put that at the top of your 'year in review.' Dead people are even more tragic, of course, and I can only imagine the pain from those who lost loved ones.

Whether fb asks people if they actually want to do a 'year in review' at all, or merely takes photos off the preview, or something else altogether, this shouldn't be that hard. Didn't they have the same or a similar feature last year?

In terms of solutions, there a number that come to mind that wouldn't be that hard to implement on top of what Meyer suggested. Even auto-avoiding the inclusion of any post which has 'dead' or 'sorry' in it would be an improvement (words like 'divorce' might or might not be auto-avoids, but anything that prompts 'sorry' responses from friends should be considered for exclusion). That way fb still gets its advertising moola and the worst of the pain is avoided.
posted by librarylis at 11:36 PM on December 25, 2014 [5 favorites]


How do I find my Year in Review? I'm normally pretty internet savvy but I can't figure it out this time.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:58 PM on December 25, 2014


nm found it
posted by Jacqueline at 12:02 AM on December 26, 2014


Yup, there's my dead cat.

Wasn't this a video last year?
posted by Jacqueline at 12:03 AM on December 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


Jacqueline. when I opened this page it ended at your "nm found it" comment, and I yelled "Don't Do It!" at the screen.

I updated, read your next comment, and muttered "Damn, too late."
posted by benito.strauss at 12:09 AM on December 26, 2014 [15 favorites]


I'm not sure why people complain about Facebook so much. It is free and you can choose what you share. None of Facebook's features are particularly compelling - it's intentionally square and for the most part anodyne. This feature was no different. Kind of dumb and clunky. But does anyone have higher expectations for Facebook?
posted by Nevin at 12:09 AM on December 26, 2014 [6 favorites]


The picture for my year in review was a white tile backsplash with black grout. It's been a great year. Thanks for being a part of it, tile and grout!
posted by infinitewindow at 12:13 AM on December 26, 2014 [31 favorites]


My "year in review" didn't work... so I hid it and hope to never see it again.
posted by MikeWarot at 12:15 AM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure if mine was just trying to be a metaphor. Clicked on it, and the whole page was just overlaid with a grey rectangle. Then nothing. Not entirely a fair metaphor though, as I had a relatively good year.
posted by pipeski at 1:03 AM on December 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


If you decide to run a social space for a billion people by diktat, it's not really a "design problem" when the decisions of a few programmers go wrong. Facebook is a quasi-commons now. The answer to a misstep like this one isn't better design; they ought to chuck the designer-as-dictator model and get users more involved in the decision-making process.
posted by Wemmick at 1:31 AM on December 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


I would bet $10 that they thought this up like 5-10 days ago and shipped it right before deadline and they were like "hey! we can get the design and code done quick! that's good, right? let's ship it to 1/6 of all humanity on Christmas"
I'll take that bet.
They did know, they don't care.

Probably ~3% of facebook users will be horribly upset by this feature versus the ~50% who will use it.
That's a lot of ad revenue to leave on the table and you know, the bereaved are all sad sacks anyway.
posted by fullerine at 1:50 AM on December 26, 2014 [8 favorites]


I already said this elsewhere, but

I AM FACEBOT. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND YOUR HUMAN EMOTIONS. LET ME RECAP THE YEAR FOR YOU BEEP BEEP.
posted by JHarris at 1:53 AM on December 26, 2014 [25 favorites]


Google's auto photo slideshow of my year in review decided to use all the pictures I took this year of things to sell on eBay. So to the accompaniment of chirpy music I got a slide show of, like, a potholder, some coasters, a handbag, some shoes I never liked, an old couch, a pair of roller skates, etc. Apparently that was my year.
posted by lollusc at 2:16 AM on December 26, 2014 [49 favorites]


"I'm not sure if mine was just trying to be a metaphor. Clicked on it, and the whole page was just overlaid with a grey rectangle. Then nothing."
posted by pipeski

Do you post on Meta a lot?
posted by marienbad at 2:35 AM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


I hate that programmers get all the blame for this. Guarantee you it was some business shithead who thought it up. Chances are the programmer he hates most on his team said: "Uh, what about people who had shit years" and was ignored. That is because this is the way development works.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:30 AM on December 26, 2014 [56 favorites]


There seems to be a fundamental sense in which Facebook just isn't equipped to properly handle negativity, whether that's personal tragedy or political critique – and the underlying reason for that is surely not design-related but advertising-related/economic. Facebook presupposes a world in which people sharing happy enthusiastic thoughts about life, and especially about the products they consume, is the default form of human discourse, and everything else is some kind of anomaly. Real life and Facebook life are thus inevitably going to end up in jarring conflict like this more and more in the future, I'd have thought.
posted by oliverburkeman at 4:44 AM on December 26, 2014 [52 favorites]


This is actually not the situation in which you say something that sounds kind of like "serves you right for being on facebook."

I read it more like: this is what Facebook does, [and we know it's nothing anyone deserves, but] it's an outcome of using Facebook. I did not get a 'serves you right' vibe.

Giraffe sounds kind of like gaffe, but making one is different from making the other.
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:47 AM on December 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure why people complain about Facebook so much.

I'm not sure why people complain about crack so much.
posted by flabdablet at 5:18 AM on December 26, 2014




Facebook sucks!

I use FB to keep up with people's announcements about their babies, weddings, and major life changes, mostly. Overall it totally sucks and is a blatantly greedy corporate machine, but right now it's the default for staying vaguely in touch with other people's lives. I post virtually nothing and never will, and it could disappear without my caring, yet it is serving a function and if it went away today there would be a replacement tomorrow because we are social creatures who like to share stories and information.

Why people get into political fights on Facebook is beyond me, though -- it is so obviously wildly unsuited for that and I've never seen anyone have a happy resolution to a political spat there.

The underlying problem is that a social platform is being run by the usual Silicon Valley types rather than with a nuanced and careful understanding of empathy and sociology -- creating exactly the sort of unnecessary problems that the FPP article discusses. It's what you do to maximize market share and ad revenue, I suppose, but it's not the right way to manage something that such a large percentage of the population is using.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:52 AM on December 26, 2014 [6 favorites]


I don't...I mean, I think this is one of the things about people and social norms that just sails directly over my head. I'm not trying to be obtuse, I just don't *get* it.

The purpose of facebook is, I think, to share and see what people have shared. Just like that MeFi post years ago with that plugin that substituted peoples pictures cats for pictures of other peoples kids---that thread was a lot of the reason that I've taken quite a long break from MeFi, so many folks so upset about how facebook does what it's literally intended to do. Literally, Facebook is the antithesis of privacy and closure. Incompatible. That dog don't hunt.

(I personally never allow anything that gets tagged to me on my timeline. I saw the year in review thing, didn't share it. AFAIK it doesn't automatically share. I clicked "I don't want to see this" and it vanished forever.)

But I want to say that avoiding the things that make you sad, or that have historically made you sad, isn't recovery. It may be survival, it may even be coping, but it certainly isn't healing---and yes I understand that sometimes folks aren't interested in healing. Do people really want the thing they lost to vanish etherally from the world around them? Like does he never want to accidentally see a picture of his lost child ever again unless it's absolutely on his terms? That seems...extraordinarily unhealthy.

Granted, I don't personally experience peak-highs or bottom-lows due to my own trauma and coping, but I recognize that simply avoiding forever things that made me sad isn't a way forward.
posted by TomMelee at 6:11 AM on December 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


Well, I know where I'm not going for a while. My father died this year and the last thing I want is facebook throwing up all the memorial messages we posted.
posted by Hactar at 6:32 AM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


Big data can only be as sensitive as the programmers who manipulate it, and the marketers who direct them to do so. Neither profession is particularly known for their compassion.

I don't think Eric's being avoidant in not wanting to see a picture of Rebecca, it's just that Facebook is being socially inept by bringing up “So how about your dead daughter?”. Right now, social media is only picking up on the most glaring of clues, and thus its response is somewhere on the autistic spectrum.

Year in Review is causing hell for an extended family member whose partner committed suicide. Way to go, Zuckerberg.
posted by scruss at 6:36 AM on December 26, 2014 [6 favorites]


Yep. The front of mine was the picture of me with my Grandma that I posted the day she died back in the spring. That it was a picture of us in front of a Christmas tree and that it showed up in front of me on Christmas Eve made it even worse.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:02 AM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


This is a story of unintended consequences. In Facebook's defense, it works great for the vast majority, and I didn't see anyone mentioning bad stories for several days, they seemed to be all happy ones. My guess is most of the posts (well into 90%) are pulling up happy things, but they're going off most comments/activity, and not just likes (it's really weird when someone announced a death and you see people "like" that status).

After reading Eric's post, I asked my wife if she got a photo of her dad and she hadn't seen the feature yet, so luckily I totally warned her, but I wasn't super surprised to see it pop up when she hit facebook for the first time in a couple weeks.

I don't know what the perfect solution is for fb to prevent this. There are some text analysis tools that can try and assess "emotionality" of a bit of text and maybe they could use that to programmatically tweak it to try and only go for "happy" stuff but you still might get photos of a new boyfriend that later went sour. It's a tough problem to solve for everyone.
posted by mathowie at 7:05 AM on December 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


This is why I made sure to "like" every post in relation to my recently deceased grandmother, because Facebook is ultimately a shallow and insipid excuse for human interaction.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 7:10 AM on December 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


Oliverburkeman nailed it. FB is fundamentally not set up to share sad news because doing so conflicts with its business strategy. Except, of course people need to (and should!) share sad news sometimes so they do it anyway. FB could acknowledge this by adding an "I'm sorry" button for people to express sympathy for sad posts and then just filter them out for these retrospective slide shows, but of course this will never happen because where's the profit in that?
posted by lzlo at 7:16 AM on December 26, 2014 [8 favorites]


Human memory is essentially cruel and thoughtless. The most vivid memories most of us have are tragedy. Automation's not going to be able to skip past that. Facebook's lack of humanity is never going to go away. And every time they *try* they'll step further and further into the uncanny valley.

Mr Meyer's had an unbelievably heart breaking year, and so many things are going to remind him of it. The facebook thing isn't going to be worse than his end of year bank statement. It doesn't autoshare. That said, it could absolutely not be so IN YOUR FACE when it's ready for you to share or hide away.
posted by DigDoug at 7:24 AM on December 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


I read it more like: this is what Facebook does, [and we know it's nothing anyone deserves, but] it's an outcome of using Facebook. I did not get a 'serves you right' vibe.

I think the bracketed portion is a charitable addition. Even that way, though, I don't think being unnecessarily confronted with the face of your recently dead daughter is a natural outcome of using Facebook, exactly? And he tried to avoid it. He was aware of what the Year in Review would look like and he is presumably aware of data mining what with being a web design consultant. So the gaffe giraffe (Giraffa gaffelopardalis) here is immediately pointing that out, as if he or anybody on this site isn't aware of how Facebook works. It's a good comment for general Facebook matters, and one that I wholeheartedly agree with -- therefore I don't have a Facebook account, and that's the end of the matter for me.

But to apply it to this piece is to willfully ignore the fact that millions of people do use Facebook, even though I and many people would love it if they didn't. Facebook is now one more arena in which (on which?) parts of our lives happen. Clearly the Meyer family "elected" to share a lot about their daughter on Facebook, and we shouldn't have to pretend befuddlement as to why. They did it because family is there, friends are there, because photos and announcements and anecdotes can be shared with them. They did it because their daughter was sick, and possibly because the last thing you want to do under those circumstances is figure out a less invasive social media platform to share these things on because otherwise Facebook will throw it back in their face in the future.

Because when things become part of our daily lives, we start to have expectations like "you won't give me a sudden emotional troutslap in the face," just like we don't expect the toaster to make toast with the likeness of a beloved deceased family member. Obviously, Facebook is more complex and malevolent than a toaster, but I would argue that it is also a bigger part of people's daily lives (for the selection sample of the populace who use both Facebook and toasters). What Meyer was writing about was a desire for a bit more human thoughtfulness in the creation or execution of things like this. If Facebook wants to be all up in our business like this, then I think it can afford more thoughtfulness, even if it isn't profitable. Will they? No, I suppose probably not.
posted by automatic cabinet at 7:51 AM on December 26, 2014 [9 favorites]


A few years ago Google decided that gmail users couldn't possibly remember to include everyone they meant to e-mail without a reminder, so it would add a little, "Would you like to add Person B" if you sent an e-mail to Person A and Person B in the past.

I'd just gone through a particularly nasty split with a significant other of 10 years, so every time I e-mailed anyone I'd ever e-mailed at the same time as them, I'd get prompted to add my ex. And there was no way to opt out or turn off this feature. In my digging to to see if there was, there were plenty of people posting who were tired of being prompted to e-mail their recently deceased loved ones.
posted by Candleman at 8:05 AM on December 26, 2014 [9 favorites]


Very similar to the backlash when Gmail had the alert about calling Dad on Father's Day.

Father's Day Google Doodle 'Call Dad' Reminder Sparks Backlash
posted by andoatnp at 8:14 AM on December 26, 2014


I told Facebook "I don't want to see this", but it has continually presented it to me every day since. Wtf?

And has anyone here actually watched someone else's year in review? I'm rather puzzled that people would actually share theirs in the belief that others would be interested in watching. Actually, I'm not (hello ego, meet Facebook; oh, I see you've already met).
posted by Halo in reverse at 8:25 AM on December 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


Facebook is a quasi-commons now.

In the same sense as "The Mall" is a quasi-commons: ie. it's a commercial space, owned by companies, and not a public space, like a commons.
posted by sneebler at 8:26 AM on December 26, 2014 [9 favorites]


Ilana Gershon has a wonderful set of articles about how Facebook is like training wheels for neoliberalism. It teaches you how to be a neoliberal agent. It takes your information for free, and it sells it to others for a profit. If some of your revelations are embarrassing or wrong, or maybe you want to erase them, it is up to you to fix it. Facebook has no responsibility for any of the falsehoods or problems that it creates by transmitting this stuff.

--Philip Mirowski

posted by sneebler at 9:46 AM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yeah, that really sucks. But, if I'm understanding this right, he subscribed to a Facebook year-in-review app. This isn't something Facebook is pushing-out to everyone unbidden. Does anyone not expect a Facebook app to suck in some horrible way or another? This is a bit like sitting down on a fire ant mound and daring them not to fuck with you.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:50 AM on December 26, 2014


I do think the suggestion to use this app comes with an example, which is, as I understood it, what Eric got pushed into his face. Unbidden.

Personally, I'm pretty cynical about Facebook, and I would definitely expect the worst from it. Which is why I do not use it. But maybe I'm more cynical than others, and crap like this comes as a surprise to them.

In any case, it must have been thoroughly unpleasant and hurtful.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:04 AM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


Thorzdad, I think you have slightly misunderstood. Meyer didn't sign up for anything; what he saw in his timeline was an ad for the year in review app, primed with his dead daughter's face.
posted by daisyk at 10:04 AM on December 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


But I want to say that avoiding the things that make you sad, or that have historically made you sad, isn't recovery. It may be survival, it may even be coping, but it certainly isn't healing---and yes I understand that sometimes folks aren't interested in healing. Do people really want the thing they lost to vanish etherally from the world around them? Like does he never want to accidentally see a picture of his lost child ever again unless it's absolutely on his terms? That seems...extraordinarily unhealthy.

His six-year-old daughter died almost exactly six months ago. If you think he isn't aware of her absence every day you don't understand much about how grieving works.

That doesn't mean he needed or wanted the emotional gutpunch he got from this unwanted Facebook thing that he did not sign up for or opt in to.
posted by Lexica at 10:44 AM on December 26, 2014 [13 favorites]


Facebook is a quasi-commons now.

More like a queasy-commons actually.
posted by srboisvert at 10:52 AM on December 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


In mine: My recently deceased companion of 15 years, next my aunt that I spent the greater part of the last year caring for as she died, and my grandfather whose picture I posted on his yartzeit. Oh and pictures from at least one of the times I was in the hospital with internal bleeding. If I were a more savvy Facebook user, I probably would have heard of it and not clicked to see what it was.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:02 AM on December 26, 2014


Lexica-
I don't know that it's fair on either of our behalves to make assumptions about what another person has or hasn't experienced, or how he or she chooses to deal with grief. I personally find solace in joyful pictures of the people and things I've lost, for better or for worse.
posted by TomMelee at 11:40 AM on December 26, 2014


I don't know what the perfect solution is for fb to prevent this. There are some text analysis tools that can try and assess "emotionality" of a bit of text and maybe they could use that to programmatically tweak it to try and only go for "happy" stuff but you still might get photos of a new boyfriend that later went sour. It's a tough problem to solve for everyone.

The perfect solution is for Facebook to display exactly what you tell it to display, nothing more and nothing less, in chronological order, and to display it to everyone to whom you want it to be displayed, and nobody else, and to banish predictive algorithmic bullshit like post "popularity" and Year in Review to the metaphorical dustbin in which it belongs.

But the advertisers might not like that, so it ain't ever gonna happen.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:43 AM on December 26, 2014 [9 favorites]


This is so easy to solve, just add non-like actions such as hate or sorry as mentioned above, this would allow corporations to see that they are universally despised and thus marketers would flee. Instead marketing people can present a one sided metric and declare victory to their boss.
posted by benzenedream at 12:10 PM on December 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


Sometimes really smart people can act really dumb

I dislike this idea that anyone who can manipulate a computer is "smart". While various bits of computing technology can seem out of reach to those who are unpracticed in the art, it's advanced in the same way repairing your own car or plumbing is advanced -- and perhaps the way being able to draw a (passable) pencil portrait is advanced -- not cutting edge science advanced. It doesn't require "smarts", it requires interest and time.

Facebook is definitely on the level of plumbing and amateur art.
posted by smidgen at 12:28 PM on December 26, 2014 [5 favorites]


I like FB. I think it's overall a good product or platform or whatever. But the year end thing is weird. I got divorced this year and obviously was a pretty shitty year. And then FB prepopulates the "share your year" msg with: "It was a great year. Thanks for being part of it!" I thought about sharing mine but changing the msg to "It was a horrible year. Thanks for being part of it!" That at least makes me laugh. But then it sounds like I'm blaming my friends.
posted by jcruelty at 12:36 PM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


I hate that programmers get all the blame for this. Guarantee you it was some business shithead who thought it up. Chances are the programmer he hates most on his team said: "Uh, what about people who had shit years" and was ignored. That is because this is the way development works.

And now that business shithead is probably blaming the programmer for the backlash.
posted by homunculus at 1:39 PM on December 26, 2014


The perfect solution is for Facebook to display exactly what you tell it to display, nothing more and nothing less

But that ignores that most people LOVE features like this, heck even I do. There are lots of magic algorithm driven features of social apps that do a great job highlighting stuff I'd normally miss, and whenever a company tries to take a pile of photos and tweak them into a gallery, usually the results are impressive and cool, and cut out all the work of selecting and arranging photos. People do like this stuff, my question is how to do it while stressing positive events and skipping deeply sad ones, but for many users, the sad posts get the most activity.
posted by mathowie at 2:35 PM on December 26, 2014


I saw more than one of these Year In Reviews posted with a sarcastic or negative message added by the person whose year is reviewed.

As people have mentioned, one of the unfortunate effects of FB social norms is the assumption or expectation that people only share or post positive things about their lives. I've noticed this effect when posting something thoughtful but not positive, or something difficult- favorites and comments are rare compared to positive posts. But the reality of life is that it is only occasionally full of joy, and ocassionally full of grief, with lots in between. Facebook assumes that you don't share pain or frustration, or anything but a sunny face. It's a bad assumption and causes awkward PR issues for them, and reinforces in its users the unspoken rule that the full range of human emotion is not welcome there.
posted by krinklyfig at 2:35 PM on December 26, 2014 [6 favorites]


Facebook assumes that you don't share pain or frustration, or anything but a sunny face. It's a bad assumption and causes awkward PR issues for them, and reinforces in its users the unspoken rule that the full range of human emotion is not welcome there.

I don't know. Is the full range of human emotion welcome at the grocery store, or the carwash? Or maybe a better analogy would be a party full of friends, acquaintances, and strangers.

I think there's a clash between public and private space -- some people see Facebook as a place to share what would normally be private thoughts and emotions with their friends, while others see it as a place to put on their best face, as they would in public. Some people see it as both.

And of course, Facebook doesn't make that distinction easy either. Facebook is not set up to easily share certain bits of information with certain people (which is the problem Google latched onto for Google+), in part because it's constantly looking to maximize "impact" and how "viral" something is -- which is what ad buyers want -- so they'd rather not give you too much control over who sees what.

And so everything that Facebook itself implements is borne out of the notion (or more cynically, the enforcement of the notion) that its users view everything as public as well -- which is clearly not the case. And then you end up with weird, troubling missteps like this.
posted by Ragini at 3:09 PM on December 26, 2014


This year has been (like most, I guess) kind of a mixed bag for me. But I suspect most people don't actually look through other people's facebook "Year in Review". I've been thinking about setting mine up with a bunch of, like, Hindenburg and other disaster pictures just to see if anyone says anything.
posted by Cookiebastard at 3:17 PM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


I dislike this idea that anyone who can manipulate a computer is "smart". While various bits of computing technology can seem out of reach to those who are unpracticed in the art, it's advanced in the same way repairing your own car or plumbing is advanced -- and perhaps the way being able to draw a (passable) pencil portrait is advanced -- not cutting edge science advanced. It doesn't require "smarts", it requires interest and time.

It's weird, to me, to go from "Facebook has stupid features and is ad driven" to "the people who create Facebook are not smart." I am a programmer, so I'm not unbiased in this, but the idea that it doesn't require intelligence to write software is... really weird. Much of the work that is done at companies like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and so on really is cutting edge science. Then there is a vast middle that is more like building a hot rod or custom car, and then there is the cut-rate low-end where you pay $200 for a college student to make a web site for your dog walking business. While I am a proponent of many people learning to apply computing power to their own problems (a.k.a. "coding"), the idea that if you just grind at it for a while, you'll get good (equivalent to the people who write software for Facebook, no less) is actually going to be discouraging for people who want to learn and discover concepts that require a lot of mental acuity.
posted by sonic meat machine at 3:20 PM on December 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


I think there's a clash between public and private space -- some people see Facebook as a place to share what would normally be private thoughts and emotions with their friends, while others see it as a place to put on their best face, as they would in public. Some people see it as both.

Some people can be honest about their emotions whether in public or private. The idea that we can't share anything but happiness in public is a sickness.
posted by krinklyfig at 3:25 PM on December 26, 2014 [7 favorites]


And has anyone here actually watched someone else's year in review?

Actually I really enjoyed watching other people's the first year they came out, when I was still on Facebook. In particular it was pretty cool to see those of family members who I'm not close enough to to pay a lot of attention to their posts on a daily basis. The year in review felt kind of like those Christmas letters that older family members send out, but without all the weird bragging about what their kids are up to. I felt like I got a good sense in overview of what they had got up to during the year. I think it worked particularly well for people who travel a lot and mainly take and post pictures when they travel, so I got, for example, the two-minute version of my brother's European backpacking trip, rather than the two-hour slide show he would have shown me in person.
posted by lollusc at 6:39 PM on December 26, 2014


he subscribed to a Facebook year-in-review app. This isn't something Facebook is pushing-out to everyone unbidden.

It was pushed on me unbidden, and literally the only thing I do on Facebook is play games. I'm fairly certain this was unchosen, just like me liking a few companies was unchosen (now and then I go through and unlike the things Facebook liked for me).
posted by Deoridhe at 1:36 AM on December 27, 2014


he subscribed to a Facebook year-in-review app. This isn't something Facebook is pushing-out to everyone unbidden.

I find I'm really annoyed by the idea that he shouldn't complain because he chose to see it. Here are the first three (short!) paragraphs of TFA, emphasis added:
I didn’t go looking for grief this afternoon, but it found me anyway, and I have designers and programmers to thank for it. In this case, the designers and programmers are somewhere at Facebook.

I know they’re probably pretty proud of the work that went into the “Year in Review” app they designed and developed, and deservedly so—a lot of people have used it to share the highlights of their years. Knowing what kind of year I’d had, though, I avoided making one of my own. I kept seeing them pop up in my feed, created by others, almost all of them with the default caption, “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.” Which was, by itself, jarring enough, the idea that any year I was part of could be described as great.

Still, they were easy enough to pass over, and I did. Until today, when I got this in my feed, exhorting me to create one of my own. “Eric, here’s what your year looked like!”
Yes, it was the algorithm. No, he did not subscribe to it or opt in to it.
posted by Lexica at 9:36 AM on December 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


Just adding to the chorus that it's an invasive feature. I'm pretty unapologetic about using Facebook, but I opt out of every possible thing, run Social Fixer, and don't use Facebook as a log in for other sites. I have also clicked "Don't show me this" on every single year in review post from friends that has come up, as well as the offer to make my own. They keep showing up. It's a pretty invasive feature and I had a good year.

I find social media, free apps and other internet things fascinating at the intersection of how users use them, what users want them for, and how they are designed and the steps developers/publishers take to force users into the behavior they envisioned the Internet Thing facilitating. For instance, was not Twitter supposed to be a means of letting people know where you were and what you were doing so people could come and join you? But then people used it as a micro micro blogging platform--to blow off steam or brag and general create ambient awareness of each other without having to directly interact. I think of how I use Pinterest to replace del.icio.us as universal bookmarking but the developers keep trying to make it social and interactive, which just fucks it up.

I'm not sure I have a point beyond finding the conflict between users and the people who control the things we use to be endlessly maddening and really interesting. The fact that Facebook seems to only want us to be happy or humblebrag and feed the advertising beast in the process is absolutely in conflict with how all of us want to use it. There has to be a more nuanced answer to why this is so.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:11 AM on December 27, 2014


I am a programmer, so I'm not unbiased in this, but the idea that it doesn't require intelligence to write software is... really weird.

I'm thinking the point was that in a pendulum that swings wildly in the responses to the vagaries of capitalism, it can be argued that there is a clear veneration of programming, and rather than simply state the obvious (which is that the only real value to the monies that be is the potential for profit, not some abstract advance of human experience), we dress it up in a hero myth, as the current pinnacle of human achievement (do I really need to Google "Programming will Save the World" to find breathless FastCo and Wired articles? I think not). It's a endeavor that prioritizes a limited set of human skills, and absent a pretty complex but potentially fragile system (computing networks and power grids), that one, being as grandiose as the heated futurists who think Uber is going to fix everything, could argue is basically useless (in trolly terms: can every brogrammer set a fracture, make a fire with twigs and rocks, etc?).

So the skill of making instant messaging apps isn't necessarily intelligent if the poor or thoughtless execution is harmful (from a humanist perspective) in a way that is pretty evident to someone approaching the problem from a different context. There's a logical congruence of libertarian thought and one dimensional approaches to complex problems -- "it's Meyer's fault for sharing images of a significant event with people he was close to when a significant event happened via a networked service that is promoted as a frictionless means for sharing significant events". So not realizing that "significant event" != "happy event" is by every fundamental measure an indication of stupidity that far outweighs any programming prowess.
posted by 99_ at 10:49 AM on December 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'm thinking the point was that in a pendulum that swings wildly in the responses to the vagaries of capitalism, it can be argued that there is a clear veneration of programming...
Programming is not "venerated," at least not as far as I have seen. It is a fairly low-status job with a high compensation, because it is rather difficult and the skills are (relatively) rare. I have certainly never had anyone say, "Oh, you're a programmer? That's awesome!"—at least not unless they have an idea that they want me to "code up" for them, usually compensated only by a laughable percentage of the profit. ("I have a great idea! If you program it for me, you can have 10%!" is a thing that I have actually heard.)
...and rather than simply state the obvious (which is that the only real value to the monies that be is the potential for profit, not some abstract advance of human experience), we dress it up in a hero myth, as the current pinnacle of human achievement (do I really need to Google "Programming will Save the World" to find breathless FastCo and Wired articles? I think not).
Software has had vastly positive effects, both for-profit and non-profit. FastCo and Wired are the froth on the vast sea of computing power, and "social media" startups are not where the most interesting work is being done. It's not the pinnacle of human achievement, but to conflate programming with the idiotic hero cults around Zuckerberg, Bezos, or the Googlers is not correct, either.
It's a endeavor that prioritizes a limited set of human skills, and absent a pretty complex but potentially fragile system (computing networks and power grids), that one, being as grandiose as the heated futurists who think Uber is going to fix everything, could argue is basically useless (in trolly terms: can every brogrammer set a fracture, make a fire with twigs and rocks, etc?).
This is true, but there are other issues at play. First, programming strengthens the fragile system; it helps us predict and model where catastrophe is likely, respond to it, and so on. "Smart grid" technologies, when deployed, help efficiency and reliability; and so on. If these fragile systems collapse, most of us will die. Starbucks baristas, automobile repairmen, plumbers, accountants, and writers are going to be just as unprepared for the post-collapse Hell as the nerdy programmers.
So the skill of making instant messaging apps isn't necessarily intelligent if the poor or thoughtless execution is harmful (from a humanist perspective) in a way that is pretty evident to someone approaching the problem from a different context. There's a logical congruence of libertarian thought and one dimensional approaches to complex problems -- "it's Meyer's fault for sharing images of a significant event with people he was close to when a significant event happened via a networked service that is promoted as a frictionless means for sharing significant events". So not realizing that "significant event" != "happy event" is by every fundamental measure an indication of stupidity that far outweighs any programming prowess.
The skill is intelligent. It is intelligence poorly applied, in some cases, but being distasteful to some people does not mean that it takes less mental power to perform the work. Of course, the more difficult problem is inventing the algorithms to determine the most significant events, and the most difficult problem (which is the source of the outrage in this instance) is determining if events are positive or negative.

As I said upthread in a crude way, I also strongly suspect that this was not a programmer's hubris. Somewhere, there is a businessman who thought it would drive ad revenues if there could be an automated "year in review app." He presented it to his team. In all likelihood, there were people on the team who said: "this is a bad idea." He said, "do it anyway." They did. It was a bad idea.

We don't gain anything by throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Programming is neither good nor evil. It is a powerful, valuable skill. The misapplication of a social recommendation algorithm in this instance does not diminish that.
posted by sonic meat machine at 12:01 PM on December 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


There's a conflation of design and programming that is not terribly helpful here. Collating a lot of posts per user and weighting them via criteria is probably a nice bit of code with some interesting technical challenges.

But since--as Jared Spool often says--design is the rendering of intent, this is where they failed miserably. For more on how Facebook routinely fails with design, I highly urge you to watch Mike Monteiro's talk about How Designers Destroyed the World.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 12:11 PM on December 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


Eric Meyer apologizes to Facebook.
posted by octothorpe at 3:26 PM on December 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


Collating a lot of posts per user and weighting them via criteria is probably a nice bit of code with some interesting technical challenges.

I suspect that given the type of jobs/analyses that Facebook is used to running, this particular feature was not a particularly interesting challenge. The 5-10 day figure guessed at above might be a little short: I'd guess more like 2-3 weeks, but it couldn't have been that tricky.
posted by TypographicalError at 7:57 PM on December 27, 2014


The Inevitable Cruelty of Algorithmic Mediation
What if the conspicuousness of Meyer's experience of algorithmic cruelty indicates less an exceptional circumstance than the clarifying exposure of a more general failure, a more ubiquitous cruelty?
posted by vibratory manner of working at 10:10 PM on December 27, 2014


Don't ever post stuff that might come back to haunt you, still seems to be the whole of the law :-|
posted by dmh at 5:32 AM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


An acquaintance of mine succumbed to cancer a couple years ago. His Facebook page is still active, but desolate. The only thing that appears on his feed with some regularity is some horoscope app he must have activated. Unfortunately, his sign was Cancer. Every so often I get a reminder on my feed showing his name followed by CANCER in bold font. Ugh.
posted by readyfreddy at 7:46 AM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I have two ex-coworkers who passed away in the last few years but no one ever disabled their LinkedIn profiles so I get theses "Congratulate Joe Deadperson on 8 years at Acme Software" messages every year. One of them has been gone since '08 so his virtual identity has been sailing on without him for six years now.
posted by octothorpe at 8:15 AM on December 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Facebook year in review hilarity.
posted by idiopath at 6:20 PM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


to "the people who create Facebook are not smart." I am a programmer, so I'm not unbiased in this, but the idea that it doesn't require intelligence to write software is... really weird

Not intelligent, but above average intelligent -- e.g. "smart" in the colloquial sense. I'm a programmer as well -- and I've worked in many different domains in my life, and the one thing I can tell you with certainty is that programming does not require above average intelligence. Like anything, if you're smart, you will do better, but it does not require it.

One would not consider someone who can draw well "smart", we would consider them "skilled". And I think that is a much better term for a programmer, as the gymnastics in programming are mental, but they are practiced, and they are not intrinsic.. no matter how much some programmers want to believe it.
posted by smidgen at 1:52 PM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


the gymnastics in programming are mental, but they are practiced, and they are not intrinsic

They often appear to be intrinsic, though. This may well be because the underlying approach to the world has been practised from a very early age.

Programming, and especially debugging, does not reward magical thinking. Marketing, by contrast, appears to involve little else.
posted by flabdablet at 1:50 AM on December 30, 2014


I disagree, smidgen, mainly because of my experience in teaching programming. In programming classes, there is a bimodal distribution: there is a population who simply don't get it, and a population that does. Their grade curves are centered at wildly different points on the spectrum. There are people who get it who fail through their own lack of motivation or self-discipline, but for the most part the class will seem "easy" to them, whereas the population that doesn't get it is impossible to reach.

I don't think this correlates perfectly to IQ, but I think that's an indication of IQ's imperfection, not that there isn't something innate underlying the aptitude. I have also often wondered if the ability of programmers to follow languages up the abstraction curve has correlations with mathematical/spatial ability; if I weren't about to start working, I'd look for papers on this topic!
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:42 AM on December 31, 2014


A PhD student at USC try to deconstruct the algorithm used by FB in this end of the year product, vis-a-vis his own bouts of depression. It is a great read!
posted by k8t at 4:42 PM on January 1, 2015


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