Does it ever feel like Facebook is doing its desperate best to keep you engaged? Urging you to connect with new “friends,” play online games, watch puppy videos, follow “trends” (like actor Patrick Stewart reacting to a singing Christmas hat).
The next thing you know, it’s a half hour later and you’re still in your jammies.
The latest Facebook gimmick is a customized timeline labeled “Year In Review.” It’s a collection of your photos most “liked” by fellow Facebook travelers, put into a sort of album with the default tagline “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.”
There’s no actual human picking those photos, let alone asking you which photos you’d like to include. Instead, like so much in the online world of social media and news aggregators, it happens algorithmically via computer programs designed, launched, and operating on their own.
Lots of people are playing the game, happy to let the social media giant pick the photographic high points of their 2014.
The problem is, not everyone had a great year. For some, the most memorable event may have been depressing or even tragic, and their Facebook-generated “Year in Review” can be a distressing reminder.
Web design consultant, speaker, and writer Eric Meyer had such an experience. His daughter Rebecca died last June on her sixth birthday, and it didn’t help to have her photo shown so prominently on Facebook – surrounded by jolly balloons and dancing cartoon figures.
“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,” Mr. Meyer wrote on his blog. “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.”
“The design is for the ideal user, the happy, upbeat, good-life user. It doesn’t take other use cases into account,” he writes. “Just to pick two obvious fixes: first, don’t pre-fill a picture until you’re sure the user actually wants to see pictures from their year. And second, instead of pushing the app at people, maybe ask them if they’d like to try a preview – just a simple yes or no…. It may not be possible to reliably pre-detect whether a person wants to see their year in review, but it’s not at all hard to ask politely – empathetically – if it’s something they want.”
In Meyer’s case, Facebook did apologize.
"[The app] was awesome for a lot of people, but clearly in this case we brought him grief rather than joy," Jonathan Gheller, the product manager for Facebook's "Year in Review" app, told The Washington Post. “We can do better – I'm very grateful he took the time in his grief to write the blog post."
Over at Twitter, it was not so much the medium as the message, specifically astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s tweets generating a sort-of “war on Christmas” backlash.
Among his jabs regarding Christians’ holy day: “QUESTION: This year, what do all the world's Muslims and Jews call December 25th? ANSWER: Thursday … On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642 … Merry Christmas to all. A Pagan holiday (BC) becomes a Religious holiday (AD). Which then becomes a Shopping holiday (USA).”
In no time at all, Tyson’s rhetorical pokes had been retweeted thousands of times, bringing a sharp backlash: “Only a small & uncharitable man would take time on Xmas morning 2 take shots but Merry Christmas to you anyway Neil…. This is disrespectful to Christians. Jesus created the science you cherish so much. Everyone finds God eventually, you will too…. Looking fwd to witty jabs during the spiritual days of Islam, Buddhism, Judaism etc. Or is it reserved for the easiest target?”
“The result is likely to further spark conservative anger at Tyson, who has long been reviled by some on the right for what is perceived as a know-it-all attitude towards organized religion,” writes Ben Jacobs at The Daily Beast. “Ironically, this was an attitude not shared by Isaac Newton who devoted much of his later life to theology and trying to interpret biblical prophesies.”