Well, That Escalated Quickly

Published 9 years, 6 months past

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 them 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.

The people who I envisioned myself writing for — they got what I was saying and where I was focused.  The very early responses to the post were about what I expected.  But then it took off, and a lot of people came into it without the context I assumed the audience would have.

What surprised and dismayed me were the…let’s call them uncharitable assumptions made about the people who worked on Year in Review.  “What do you expect from a bunch of privileged early-20s hipster Silicon Valley brogrammers who’ve never known pain or even want?” seemed to be the general tenor of those responses.

No.  Just no.  This is not something you can blame on Those Meddling Kids and Their Mangy Stock Options.

First off, by what right do we assume that young programmers have never known hurt, fear, or pain?  How many of them grew up abused, at home or school or church or all three?  How many of them suffered through death, divorce, heartbreak, betrayal?  Do you know what they’ve been through?  No, you do not.  So maybe dial back your condescension toward their lived experiences.

Second, failure to consider worst-case scenarios is not a special disease of young, inexperienced programmers.  It is everywhere.

As an example, I recently re-joined ThinkUp, a service I first used when it was install-yourself-and-good-luck alpha ware, and I liked it then.  I’d let it fall by the wayside, but the Good Web Bundle encouraged me to sign up for it again, so I did.  It’s a fun service, and it is specifically designed to “show how well you’re using your social networks at a more human level,” to quote their site.

So I started getting reports from ThinkUp, and one of the first was to tell me about my “most popular shared link” on Twitter.  It was when I posted a link to Rebecca’s obituary.

“Popular” is maybe not the best word choice there.

Admittedly, this is a small wrinkle, a little moment of content clashing with context, and maybe there isn’t a better single word than “popular” to describe “the thing you posted that had the most easily-tracked response metrics”.  But the accompanying copy was upbeat, cheery, and totally didn’t work.  Something like, “You must be doing something right — people loved what you had to say!”

This was exactly what Facebook did with Year in Review: found the bit of data that had the most easily-tracked response metrics.  Facebook put what its code found into a Year in Review “ad”.  ThinkUp put what its code found into a “most popular” box.  Smaller in scale, but very similar in structure.

I’m not bringing this up to shame ThinkUp, and I hope I haven’t mischaracterized them here.  If they haven’t found solutions yet, I know they’re trying.  They really, really care about getting this right.  In fact, whenever I’ve sent them feedback, the responses have been fantastic — really thoughtful and detailed.

My point is that ThinkUp is a product of two of the smartest and most caring people I know, Gina Trapani and Anil Dash.  Neither of them comes anywhere close to fitting the Young Brogrammer stereotype; they are, if anything, its antithesis, in both form and deed.  And yet, they have fallen prey to exactly the same thing that affected the Year in Review team: a failure to anticipate how a design decision that really worked in one way completely failed in another, and work to handle both cases.  This is not because they are bad designers: they aren’t.  This is not because they lack empathy: they don’t.  This is not because they ignored their users: they didn’t.  This is such a common failure that it’s almost not a failure any more.  It just… is.

We need to challenge that “is”.  I’ve fallen victim to it myself.  We all have.  We all will.  It will take time, practice, and a whole lot of stumbling to figure out how to do better, but it is, I submit, vitally important that we do.

Comments (99)

  1. Of course, one other great example in this context is Facebook’s LIKE button. Which is often used for many things that have nothing to do with actually liking something.

  2. Thank you for your original post about Facebook, and thank you for this response to the response.

    But thank you more for sharing your thoughts and your daughter with the rest of us.

    I am so sorry.

  3. Mark Senff: That’s a great example, for more reasons than the inappropriateness of “Like” for many things. I read somewhere recently that Facebook is actively trying to figure out a solution but are holding off doing anything until they figure out the right thing to do – for example they feel that an “Dislike” button could quickly devolve into something ugly, and don’t want to unleash that upon their users.

    I read the uncharitable assumptions on the last post with some disbelief myself. I only know one Facebook engineer and he is a young single guy without too many problems, but he cares deeply about others and heartbreak on some level is likely coming his way, if it hasn’t already.

    Eric: I can’t imagine what you’ve been through over the past year and a half, but thank you for using your experience to help us understand how we can use our work to help others in pain and how to avoid worsening it or creating unwanted reminders of it.

  4. Following your original post, I succumbed to “just share the post” sloppiness, without offering my own commentary and context. When I did I was dismayed with the (very few) replies it generated. I have a very small circle and it was easy to quench, but I realized I shouldn’t really have been surprised. Most of my social media set are not web designers or developers and I mistakenly assumed they would understand the context being that many have heard me rail about usability issues, designing for all users and such. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I contributed to muddying the internet and will be more careful in the future.

  5. I don’t code so I’m not the target for your technical pieces. What I really do understand and appreciate in everything of yours I’ve read is your thoughtfulness, decency and kindness. Of course you wish these squishy algorithms would have those same qualities! I bet you folks will get it figured out eventually.

  6. To be brief, design and development should be more considerate in wording and presentation of statistical data. I like how Eric has ‘turned a bad thing good’ and taken away something from his experience and has shared it with us. Good on you Eric.

  7. First off, thank you for your valuable insights over the years. This post is another. The day after I read your last post, the same thing happened a friend on Facebook. I must say, I was filled with many of the negative responses you mentioned in this post. Clearly, that was wrongheaded. Your compassion and grace is inspiring.

  8. A solution to the ‘FB Like Button’ dilemma is perhaps to name it upvote/downvote or some other thing that ‘approves’ the post etc.

  9. Your original post really resonated for me. I had a terrible year and I get upset every time I open Facebook. I don’t want to have to make it go away. I want to opt out before they create it. You did a really great thing to open up awareness on this topic and if Facebook wants to apologize, that’s fine but don’t feel badly about doing it!!

  10. Dear Eric
    It is great to see an increasing number of computer professionals thinking about how design influences wellbeing. Your post made me reflect further on what we call “positive computing” and I was writing some of these thoughts today when I read your new post.

    You might be interested in our new book, published by MIT Press

    best wishes

  11. i had a relatable experience in a pre social media age. My infant daughter passed away at birth. Unknown to me she was taken to be photographed by the hospital newborn photography vendor. This was a service I declined for my previous two living children. A few weeks later I received a large mailer in the mailbox. While waiting for my sons school bus at the curb, with my three year old daughter by my side I opened this mystery envelope. There was a portrait package of my deceased daughter. It was like getting punched in the head to see this so unexpectedly. I called the photo company to ask why the would do this to a person and the rep on the phone said “it was their gift to us”. I said it wasn’t something I wanted and why wasn’t I warned? The response was that some deceased babies aren’t photogenic and they don’t like to make promises, I was lucky she looked good. I do have photos of my daughter that I took and nurses took, the impersonal posed photos I would never have wanted, but can’t get rid of. The moment at the mail box is indelible in my mind. No coding here, just people.

  12. I’ve come and read so much and am so sorry for your loss and commend you for your generosity of spirit.

  13. News of your original post has been published here in New Zealand today – and I can empathise. As the coverage has spread this far, so has the original YIR problem – it has affected several people I know who have been confronted with the FB feature encapsulating their year in ways they would rather not.

    You obviously felt an ‘apology’ to your professional fellows was in order, however the vast majority who don’t work in the same field feel no such regret: FB needs to be called out on this relentless and artificial positivity lark.

  14. Data mining just provides resulting numbers without any possible understanding of content and context. They searched and found your most popular post but the algorithm can’t understand the why. Similarly, the year in review algorithm brings things to the fore without understanding. Only humans can do that and the negative aspects only exist in the edge cases. I have an edge case as well and as a result I chose to not post mine. The algorithm worked as well as it could, but it could never get more than close. Algorithms are impersonal. That is both their value and their curse.

  15. You are so thoughtful to be thinking of your impact on the Facebook team as you’re dealing with what I’m sure must be a very difficult season. I admire your courage.

    I have Facebook friends who posted similarly intentioned, although less eloquent, messages on their walls, so I believe you spoke on behalf of many who suffered losses this year. Don’t beat yourself up for that. I think it’s something Facebook needed to hear and I hope it doesn’t sound condescending to say I’m personally proud of how you both handled it.

    So sorry for the loss of your daughter.

  16. I’m so grateful you wrote that article. I lost a loved one this year, and Facebook’s generated “Year in Review” deeply upset me. The rest of the app required my permission to make them – the Facebook one surprised me to see it in my newsfeed without my permission. Facebook has now taken it down, and I think I owe you a thank you for that.

    I understand they’re nice guys, but I don’t think you owe them an apology. They should’ve tested this on a variety of real people. This is not the first time they have been insensitive about personal content. For example, all private pictures use to be viewable on a public URL that could be shared to everything, etc. It seems like they rarely properly QA a product. It’s nice that someone generated enough of a conversation about the way they work at Facebook that the people at Facebook are taking notice. I think it will only lead to a better product.

  17. I must say, I am a bit disappointed that you feel such pressure to go into apologies. You pointed something out in a very, VERY fair manner, without pointing any fingers at all.
    I even signed up in order to reply, for this very reason.
    Whatever it is you feel that you NOW need to do to correct some “wrong”, is absolutely unnecessary.
    In the same you point out that there is no head of the Dragon, I welcome you to understand that it then would not require an apology.

    If we keep dancing around with pleasantries while major designs of ours may fail us, we are doing the exact same thing as exploiting or neglecting our interactions with each other: we are not taking it seriously.

    You make a very serious, and very fair point, one which the internet obviously found resonance with.
    Don’t run away from that point because you feel overwhelmed or embarrassed, or otherwise under any pressure.
    That completely destroys the validity of the post to begin with.

    Blessings to you and your family.

  18. I’m sorry, Eric, but I feel you let them off the hook far too easily.

    You got an apology from Facebook, although you didn’t ask for one, but what about an apology from them to the countless others whose holidays were stomped upon by Facebook’s unblinking algorithm?

    Facebook’s engineers’ hearts might be in the right place, but their brains need to be in the right place. They’re not designing content for a handful of like-minded friends to share. (See how I used those three words in their correct manner? It’s still possible!)

    The resultant “Year in Review” was never something that should have been made public. At its best, it would be some useful data-mining for their statistics drones. At its worst, as we have seen, it is just blindly throwing a heavy weight (pun!) at its audience, and hoping they can hold it. What consideration to those not as strong as you?

    Until Facebook’s design and development evolves beyond simple statistical weighting and scoring (which is all this seems to be), they should refrain from inflicting more code like the Year in Review on the public. They simply are affecting too many lives now, and that fact has to be forefront in their minds. “Rule 1) Our code affects MILLIONS of lives. Rule 2) Real-life people with all their inherent emotional messiness! Rule 3) Seriously!” Everything else should flow from that.

    Once they truly realize that, and start designing as if they’re not just providing a service to those people, but that their very work is _service_ (that’s one thing that NEVER EVER comes to mind when I think of Facebook… this idea of “service”!), then, and only then, can they try following their hearts.

  19. > “two of the smartest and most caring people I know”
    > “a failure to anticipate how a design decision…”
    > “This is such a common failure that it’s almost not a failure any more. It just… is”

    As you point out, no one is trying to be malicious, but I disagree and think that these failures *are* predictable.

    There is an unstated (technopositivist?) assumption that because algorithms are themselves neutral, the usage of an algorithm cannot be offensive.

    Using algorithms in conjunction with emotions is inherently dangerous IMO. As others have pointed out, context is often lacking, and the results can be awful.

    A more affectless UI such as “your post is most viewed” would be less likely to be upsetting, but that style is not conducive to the upbeat image that tech businesses want to promote. I hope that this will change as the tech industry becomes more mature, but I fear otherwise.

    Thanks for sharing your heart in your blog. You have touched many people very deeply and that is worth more than all the automation in the world.

  20. It seems to me that it wouldn’t be grasping at an edge case for someone at Facebook to assess the risk of dragging everyone’s entire year up in their noses. Even far less painful circumstances like break ups and divorces, lost jobs, pets…the possibilities seem pretty vast. Let alone more powerful and affecting tragedies.

    I think they made a calculated decision and went forward thinking the benefit was worth the grief they would cause. I’m hoping this is a teachable moment for them.

    I respect your healthy perspective on the matter. Your decision to move forward from Facebook’s insensitive decision is remarkable. No one could blame you for continuing to to bring attention to the consequences of their poor decision making. You set a high bar for high mindedness.

    Best Wishes

  21. I am so sorry for the loss of your daughter. Losing loved ones is hard. Your original post had poignancy for me as I lost my beloved dog a couple of months ago – not the same as losing a daughter, but still a serious pain moment when the pictures I posted as a memorial to her showed up in my ‘Year in review’.

    I am a UI/UX designer, and I always try to think of any potential ‘shadow side’ when I design things. How might this hurt, or be used to hurt, someone? How might this make someone’s life more difficult? This is necessary for all apps, but particularly those that use social media. We think of accessibility issues when we design, and we should consider affect as well. There have been enough reports on devastating effect of cyber bullying to make thinking through the potential emotional impact on users a vital consideration in the design process.

    I wanted to thank you for both your original thoughtful reflection, and this one. I think you raised some important issues that need addressing. Design is not just about function, it is also about creating an experience for users. We should act to ameliorate negative and painful consequences for them.

    I left my dog’s photos in my Year in Review when I posted it. Life – alas – is not always sweetness and light. It isn’t always happy selfies with friends and loved ones. It also has shadow moments. We should design with this in mind.

  22. One possible word as a replacement for the FB ‘like’ would be ‘acknowledgement’.

  23. Pingback ::

    The problem with Facebook’s “Year in Review” – Quartz

    […] explains that what happened to him was an “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty.” In a follow-up post, he writes that he does not blame designers for the code’s lack of empathy. He points out that […]

  24. The first post was spot on. But this one makes me wonder if perhaps you were pressured to acquiesce to the industry. Because I don’t buy it.

    I’ve been working with the “internet” since it was called “DARPAnet”. Coding is personal: we code what we know. And this is a perfect example of privilege. If we haven’t experienced pain and suffering, we don’t code for it because we don’t get it. We assume everyone has had the same wonderful life that we have had. Then we scramble around apologies when we get caught with our britches down.

    I’ve loved and lost, so I feel for you and your daughter. But I also question your forgiveness of callous ignorance.

    I can code a laser to cut a chip for a missile, I can code an operating system to accommodate duplicate files and duplicate data on a single file system, and I can code a web application to process what’s happened against what might happen versus what’s expected to happen.

    And I can do all that without the kind of money FB commands.

    So why are you so forgiving?

  25. I’m all about someone having a change of heart but I wanted you to know I still agree with your original Year in Review sentiments. The first time I saw it pop up in my feed I remember thinking, “maybe not everyone out there cares to remember 2014 in all its glory.” 2014 has probably been the most sparing of the last 3 years to me personally, but it’s hardly a year I want put up in random, truncated lights. I have no idea how I got here; ironically I think it was from a fb post. But I do know 1) I have zero clue as to what you wrote about prior to 08/2013 given my husband’s penchant for referring to me as an analog and 2) I have been sitting in my dark bedroom alternating between crying and asking myself “what if?” as I read your posts about Rebecca. I am tempted to wake my daughter up from her nap just to hug her or order my husband to bring my son home so I can hug him. Like you wrote, as parents we often wonder how we would deal with such a tragedy and tell ourselves we couldn’t possibly, but reading your posts has shown that we choose to begin to accept the unplanned and seemingly unfair long path we are forced to travel. You, your wife and all of your children will forever be in my thoughts.

  26. I think this type of design error, is that hard to avoid, with enough testing

    Its hard to imagine that facebook at least, didnt have enough resource, that not even one thought, what if this guy had a bad year?

    facebook is about socializing, no one at facebook thought that people might have posted about the bad issues they went through

    sorry, but this error could have been avoid, with logic, common sense, and enough testing

    jonathan gheller failed bad, for someone working for such a large company, maybe he is the nicest person, but this was an engineering mistake

    test, test, test …

  27. I drive truck for a living. I didn’t figure out until I actually used my laptop on Christmas Day from home what this year in review actually was. I’m kind of glad that Facebook didn’t really figure out how to do the year in review properly on their smart phone apps…at least for the Blackberry. I knew something was a bit odd when I kept on seeing everyone saying the phrase its been a great year thanks for being a part of it.

    Then I was thinking to myself on the road – thanks for being a part of it? – up until three weeks ago I just wanted this year to end.

    Here is my year in review, my father died December 9th 2013, rather suddenly from a routine surgery … which he decided to have early rather than later other wise he probably would of passed in February 2014. He didn’t die from the surgery but from health complications…like playing with a revolver with only 2 bullets in it. His choices were limited.

    This threw me for an emotional, and psychological loop, as we weren’t that close even though we talked all the time. I struggled at work, I struggled with day to day. Then my mom’s sister passed away due to cancer. I then had emergency surgery for kidney stones, which ended up being exceptionally hard, but due to past history they kept me in the hospital and dealt with it accordingly.

    Did I also say I started the roller coaster ride with my car which should of been dealt with years before but came to a header the same week I went into the hospital. I wiped my hands of my car in June of 2014….of which I hadn’t been driving since January. Two failed inspections, two court dates, and three tickets I have been given a year to pay off….this and still dealing with the death of my dad.

    So things started to take an upturn in June with a newish pickup and getting my bills caught up. But then I had to contend with interment of my father in my home town. This happened in July and made me realize that death happens all the time, but when someone passes; it has nothing to do with them and everything to do with them not being there anymore.

    This is extremely hard to do when your extended family drags out this process over the entire year. This might of been a different story if my parents stayed married but that horse died in 1989. To sum up I’ve been on depression medication for the last three weeks, work is leveling out, bills are pretty much paid off, and I’m actually enjoying my four days off.

    I too can understand what the year in review was intended for, but know it would of been a bit harder if I seen it properly when it was launched. Just keep a stiff upper lip – keep smiling even if you can’t. Thanks for this article….makes me feel not so bad. Knowing obviously I’m not the only one out there who didn’t really need to recap their year in review.

  28. Jason, there was no pressure to recant, apologize, or otherwise walk back, from anyone. If there had been, I’d most likely have dug in my heels and doubled down, not given in. I was like that even before I went though 2014.

    Why am I so forgiving? I don’t know; should I ask why you aren’t? I just am, I guess. Maybe I’d be less so if this were something they’d uniquely fallen prey to, but it isn’t. I see this so much, in so many places, from so many different teams and even fields of study, that I find it hard to believe that it can be explained by any one factor—except, perhaps, that it isn’t taught to designers, whether academically or by the community. I’m ready to take my best swing at fixing the latter, and maybe even the former.

    Maybe you’re right, that this is “a perfect example of privilege”. Maybe I’m too blind (or just too inexperienced) to see that. If so, I’ll own that error. For now, I have to be who I am, and this is it.

  29. Pingback ::

    Well, That Escalated Quickly | The WordPress C(h)ronicle

    […] visit Meyerweb […]

  30. Being young or being a programmer doesn’t preclude one from knowing pain. Victims come in all age groups unfortunately that’s just the way this world is. Victims come in all creeds and all colors. Some of us were taken advantage of when we were young or in other way abused. I don’t think it would be appropriate to go into specifics but you can probably guess (but never _know_) what I mean. I’ve been struggling to live life since 2004. I was only 13 years old. I saw my best friend murdered in front of me. I’ve had reconstructive surgery and I look normal again. My nose doesn’t look the same though. In some ways I wish I would have died that day because it’s been so hard to move on. Weed is the only thing that helps me forget and I smoke it daily. I’m a programmer because I can work in isolation. Not sure why I typed all that that maybe it’s just therapy for me. I’m deeply sorry for your loss I’m sorry I made this comment all about me.

  31. I really like all the explanations you gave us on how these algorythms and programmers work.

    Thanks for doing it. It helps us to understand that machines are just that machines. And the ones who are behind them are working for us.

    Thank you,

  32. Well, I’m sorry you had to experience that. When our daughter died in ’87 we received printed “childhood developmental milestones” newsletters, monthly, in the mail from our hospital. Just no way to navigate some of life’s messiness.
    Forgiveness frees you from wasting energy that could be well spent elsewhere. Great loss does give us perspective, and a quiet moment to see what is important.
    Best wishes in 2015

  33. Thank you so much for your heartfelt comments. They are coming from a good place.

  34. You have so much good to give and, bless you, you know how to give it! I admire the way you write: clean, clear, concise. I have to wonder if coding has given you a heightened appreciation of the English language; you utilize it so well.

  35. Pingback ::

    The Real Source of Cruelty In Facebooks “Year in Review” | Hamza Shaban

    […] Meyer has a follow up post where he says this type of criticism is unfounded and […]

  36. You are a very forgiving man … I don’t know if I could be the same. Over time, I suppose it will help me heal if I work hard at it.

    Thank you for being who you are!!

  37. Your kindness and expressions of empathy mean more to the wider world than you know. And rather than saying “I’m sorry for your loss,” I’d rather just say I’m glad you knew her.

  38. Pingback ::

    Accounting for Social Outliers – Teaching Software to Think More Like a Human | Jason M Head

    […] I do want to say kudos to him for his follow up thoughts: http://meyerweb.com/eric/thoughts/2014/12/27/well-that-escalated-quickly/ […]

  39. Eric, I was linked to your other story on Facebook and I think this is the one time I was really happy to see a suggestion in “related posts” :-)

    I think what you said in the last post is absolutely justified and I 100% agree with what you’ve said here as well. It’s often the failure of the design system in place rather than the individual people involved. Anything that’s coded seems to get 90% of things right and 10% wrong, and unfortunately, the 10% that’s wrong is often ignored – due to many things: time/deadlines, money/sales, inexperience/naivete, etc. leading to unexpected scenarios and unintended conclusions.

    I loved reading many of the comments on the post because they continued in the positive light that you’ve written here with ideas for simple solutions that can help other entrepreneurs consider the “worst case scenario” and how to help make situations more friendly to the user. I think the advice applies to many industries (cough…data mining in the retail industry…cough…).

    good thoughts to you and your family, and I hope to hear more interesting work from you in the future like this.

  40. My “year in review” feature photo was of me and my best friend who died in a car accident earlier this year. I had to block the feature so I did not have to see it everyday. I think Facebook really needs to think before they do stuff like this.

  41. Pingback ::

    Some People May Not Want To Relive Their Facebook Year In Review

    […] algorithmic cruelty” – the rote routine of computers to do what they’re told. He even took to his blog again after receiving a personal apology from Jonathan Gheller, the product manager on the app team, to explain that he wasn’t […]

  42. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  43. Here’s another horrible example of how bad things can happen when you remove human judgement from the equation.


    My former newspaper’s website ran inappropriate ads next to horrific photos coming out of Haiti after the earthquake.

    There was a day when airlines had a standing order to pull their ads if the news carried a crash story are long gone when machines, not people generate stuff.

  44. I think you’ve inadvertently stumbled upon an area of web design that could really use your guidance, Eric. Aaron Walter’s ‘Designing for Emotion’ is a really good source for finding use-cases as they apply to using humor and other emotional responses to help increase user interaction and retention. Luke Wroblewski has done a great job documenting common anti-patterns used by Airlines. But, finding use-cases for dealing with uncomfortable topics are extremely lacking.

    Age restrictions and language filters are probably the extent of design considerations. But, for example, people will post something unfortunate on social media where the “like” button is completely inappropriate. If Facebook can filter newsfeeds to only show positive posts in an attempt to effect their user’s mood, then surely they can identify when a “like” button should be replaced with “give support” or “condolences” or whatever, right? Showing ads for dating sites on Gmail when reading break-up emails or bankruptcy attorney ads on overdue bill notices are also good examples. I guess empathy isn’t strictly confined to content strategy…

    Maybe a new A Book Apart is in order?

  45. Maybe the solution here isn’t a ‘dislike’ button but the option to not include a ‘like’ button. Seems like that would solve multiple issues.

    Yes, it creates another step in content creation but maybe by default, the like button is set to on but can be turned off.

    I remember posting about my father’s passing from cancer and thought…why the hell would I want anyone to like this? When people like this, what does it even mean?


  46. It’s about time for another purple book in the A Book Apart rotation anyhow. :)

  47. I, too, am so sorry about little Rebecca leaving you this past year… as her story has gone global.

    But I’m blown away by your charitable response; i.e., that you appeal how lack of empathy and insensitivity NOT be blamed. Hmm. I can’t agree. I believe lack of empathy and humanity IS a troubling matter in our present society. Forethought, propriety, “doing the right thing” guided previous generations more fully. We are pitiful human beings with our inability to exercise “The Golden Rule.” (I was at a holiday party where a 40-something woman actually said, “What’s that?” Wow.)

    I believe little Rebecca is somehow being a divine messenger right now… who is urging us all to join her in being champions for compassion, empathy and selflessness. She’s a hero to me, Eric. Congrats on this, too, Daddy.

  48. Facebook has not cornered the insensitivity market. This week I received an e-mail from the hotel where I stayed when I was caring for my dying sister. It said something like, “Relive the fun of your trip to _______, come stay with us again soon!”

  49. Thank you for posting this. I read your story yesterday and am very sorry and agree we should have an option. The photo Facebook chose for me was a picture of my Grandmother who passed away. Not saying that this is at all in comparison but more of an agreement, that we should have an option if we want to. Again very sorry for your loss

  50. The dilemma I’ve been facing since my first wife died in 2007 is what to do with all of her social media accounts. I didn’t close them because that didn’t feel right, but ever since I’ve been getting notifications and who-to-follow recommendations from well-meaning sites that quite correctly think that I’d like to see more from her.

    I don’t know that there is a complete answer to these issues – I’ve also thought a lot about it, and I think that a certain amount of triggering is always going to be a part of our social media life. I’ve even done it to myself.

    And once again, I’m so sorry to have seen you go through all of the grief and pain of the last year, Eric, but I thank you for sharing what you have.

  51. Thank you for this Marc. Indeed it is a systematic issue. No one individual intends any harm to come of it; it’s just that not every scenerio is always thought through well enough. I too did not post my Facebook Year in Review because it “highlighted” the passing of my father in September.

  52. I don’t participate in FB, but I think there is another issue unearthed by this situation: how we remember… I find I simultaneously long for memories of my sister and brother to be in the world with me — whether I say them or others do — and yet each one of those memories cuts like a knife. I can’t bear a world where they aren’t … and now the only way they can be is through memories. I feel the same as I spend time with my nieces and nephews … I have always been close to them, but now I cannot only be their aunt as I so often have to be the helping not-parent. Every moment with them is like dark chocolate covered pretzels — bittersweet and salty. How could any algorithm “know” how to deal with that jumble of emotions, that contradiction, that uneven healing process? I long for that time when it doesn’t hurt to remember them, and I can’t imagine when that could possibly be. I can only imagine what it is like for you and your family … Rebecca’s loss is so huge because she was such a bright star (from what I can tell from your writing) and I don’t know who doesn’t feel that way about the ones they have lost. Our world is darker, our memories so bright, our wound made fresh so often…

  53. While I agree with you that people shouldn’t be quick to call the coders names and assume they’ve never had tragedy in their lives, I have to say I’m still glad you brought this to their attention. I like the fact that you accepted their apology and are holding no animosity towards them, but this needs to be fixed so it doesn’t spring up again next year.

    I buried a friend and my grandchildrens other grandmother in March, then a week later my own aunt. In May four young people in our town were killed in a car accident and my son was friends with all of them, and the girl that passed he dated for almost a year, so she was like a daughter to me. I had to put my dog to sleep in June. And then in July was informed my mother in law had terminal cancer and spent six weeks in Ireland helping take care of her until she passed away. She was buried in August.

    To just top off this wonderful year my husband, who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2008 and originally came from England, decided while in Ireland he was going to return to England with his siblings because he no longer wanted to be a “burden” to me…something I never felt he was, nor ever told him he was. But got no real choice in the matter. So I returned home at 49 years old, jobless because I’d been taking care of him, with no income as his disability went with him. So now I’m looking for work and trying to keep my head above water.

    I’m sorry to make this so long…but I wanted to give you the whole picture so you could imagine what my Facebook Year in Review looked like. Needless to say, it was NOT something I wanted to share, or to be forced to relive by seeing it appear on my timeline!

    So I thank you for bringing this to their attention so they will be a bit more careful in the future. And so other public forum venues will remember, there are real live people with sometimes not so fantastic lives, or years out there on the other end of that screen!!

    And I’m so sorry for the loss of your daughter. That is a pain I can’t imagine, and you have my deepest sympathy.

  54. My husband and I lost Both our Daughter and Grandson on the same day in May due to a tragic Carbon Monoxide Poisoning… Seeing the year in review definitely is NOT anything we want to do.. I understand your pain all too well.

  55. Is it possible the coding thoughtlessness is truly more fundamental? I would argue that the problem arises from the “Like” function itself, which is the only hard-coded response Facebook gives us to a post. What if they added “Sympathize” or “So sorry”as an alternative to “Like”? I frequently see Friends Like a post, and then add a comment saying “I don’t really Like this, but I’m glad your father is settled so well at hospice…that you’re home from the hospital…etc”
    Then Facebook would have information built in about the Year in Review and other algorithmic-based functions.

  56. Yes, failures to consider use cases is not uncommon, and also failure to recognize error conditions and how how to properly handle errors, but consider this – when someone does properly consider all relevant cases, nobody seems to notice.

    An education helps. Experience helps. But even people who are educated and experience make mistakes. This is why testing is just as critical as proper design and implementation.

    When I started in this business over 30 years ago, project development times were 18 months, they were relatively few lines of code because memory was limited, there were few third-party components, and there was 5 QA testers for every developer (6 if you count the developer, who should also do some testing).

    Today, project times are often only 6 months, there are many third-party components, the systems are large and many lines of code with more third-party components, and there are often only one QA person per developer in some companies.

    The reason is cost – it costs money to produce good software. As long as the market is willing to allow bugs, and accept after-sale patches, then this will continue. Interestingly, in Japan, products are not usually allowed to ship even if there are only minor bugs in what might be considered unimportant features. There, the software is usually higher quality than here.

    Of course, I am generalizing to certain places I’ve seen – different companies are different. Be the change you want to see in the world!

  57. Eric, I got to read your blog through the post regarding FB’s Year in Review. I was soon hooked. I was moved to learn about Rebecca’s passing away, but I was even more moved to get to know about her life and her courage and about the whole family’s actions and spirit.

    I am filled with admiration for all of you and I believe you have helped and will continue to help many who undergo bereavement.
    By all means do write a book, as you mention somewhere you might, which is sure to be a source of comfort in troubling times.

  58. Same story here. My 22 year old son died of a heroin overdose this March at the age of 22. I hesitated to even do the “review” but I did. To say I was sick to my stomach would be an understatement. Front and center was his obituary and funeral mass pictures. Yes that was my year in review but it made me physically ill.

  59. I stumbled here via news coverage but I’m glad I did – your blog seems a good one to follow.

    It’s very sad that some of the the ‘compassionate’ strangers lending you sympathies also get angry and rude without any thought for the other point of view towards the programmers – I thought your previous post was excellent and very clear, respectful and well-written, and you have reason to be angry and rude. You certainly have nothing to apologise for – the internet does its own thing.

    I’ll never code for a living, but I appreciate it – forced subjects in my electrical engineering degree, still going, but my boyfriend might and your well-reasoned response is great reading to learn how to find the limit to computers.

    I hope 2015 brings your family joy and adventures

  60. While I applaud your compassion and forgiveness, what on EARTH are you apologizing for? I don’t get it, and as someone who was grateful for your initial post, I kind of feel let down by this one.

  61. Pingback ::

    Inadvertent algorithmic cruelty | Illustrated Monthly Blog

    […] See also Meyer’s follow-up. While many took the original post as a way to hate on Facebook, Meyer didn’t mean it like that. […]

  62. My Mother died unexpectedly on Christmas Eve last year. On 12/28/14 (a year to the day of her funeral) I got on Facebook and the first thing I see is a picture of my Mom and my Year in Review. Thanks for making me feel worse than I already did Facebook.

  63. Hey Eric,

    I read about your cruel story with Facebooks’ Year in Review here: http://cafegelb.de/2014-es-war-ein-schreckliches-jahr/

    I also had a cruel, cruel 2014 and saw the pictures on Facebook. So my friend, Keep smiling and all the best!

  64. Pingback ::

    Algorithm Cruelty and Human Misjudgment | Small Business Mavericks

    […] spokesman for the opposition when he took issue with the practice on his blog. His recent post on the whole subject has some very good points for any business that has an internet presence to […]

  65. Perhaps next time they should utilize some sort of sentiment analysis. For example: http://www.alchemyapi.com/products/alchemylanguage/sentiment-analysis/

  66. I, like many others, stumbled upon your blog due to the media coverage. Glad I did, what a great writer and person you are.

    I lost my best friend in July 2013 to brain cancer. She was 30 years old. It is a horrible disease with not enough research. She, too, was constantly searching for medical trials and cures that never came. No one should have to suffer from this disease, and no one should have to lose a child/spouse/friend/sister/etc to this tragic disease.

    I hope your blog will continue to bring awarness to brain cancer, especially now that you may have a bigger platform.

    So sorry for the loss of your sweet Rebecca.

  67. Pingback ::

    Bookmarks for December 29th from 04:27 to 13:32 : Extenuating Circumstances

    […] Well, That Escalated Quickly – 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… […]

  68. I happened upon your website by accident while looking for info on my cell phone battery drainage. I thought – what a smart guy – and set out to find other articles. What an introduction to your website and how appropriate for me. What caught me up was your posting about Facebook’s Year in Review. I, too, suffered a tragic loss this year – my son. Picture after picture of him throughout the year – and I cried – still do. I felt it heartless that this posted without my having approved it and also that it was thrown out there for me to see. I feel it should have been my choice to have it out there and not theirs. I felt helpless to stop it other than hide it. But still, I wanted someone to know that this just shouldn’t happen. But I am just one – or so I thought. Thank you for your efforts to make the “powers that be” aware of their oversight. I just wish I had seen them offer the same apology to the countless others and a promise to improve. I won’t wait for that to happen but will just be less likely to share anything further that can be painful in the future. I am sorry for your loss, Eric. No one should ever have to bury their child…but some of us do. And we will continue to live on and remember our loves ones as we do so. Best wishes to you in 2015.

  69. For those of us who’ve been through a particularly difficult year filled with loss, has anyone found it helpful to go through these reviews? For a while after my mom’s death, I was going through old photos a ton, but now, I don’t really have the appetite for it, and I’ve avoided the “year in review” things like the plague.

  70. I use my FB basically to keep track of the young ones {my children} . I do not post anything personally dramatic. I have read posts that I would think were better left delivered to friends or family personally and only one at a time. This is a lesson that has to be learned over and over again. If you don’t want it out there forever, Don’t put it on a Social Media site. At all !. Or if circumstances warrant, post then take it down after a pre decided window of time. We all have a story, some need to be told, but, it is up to each person to decide, What to tell, to whom, and when.
    On a side note, the lady who lost the sweet baby and received un authorized photos, should sue. That is just wrong on so many moral, ethical and legal levels.

  71. When I first encountered the Facebook “Year In Review” app my immediate thought was “What about those of us who’ve had a crap year?” Your patient, intelligent and measured first-hand review of the potential problem should be required reading for anyone who works on the web. And for anyone who has ever wished to register a concern with a corporation.
    So often, the anonymity of the Internet — and especially social media — gives people the courage and arrogance to say things without regard for context, feelings, or even reality. You’ve shown your readers how to voice a complaint respectfully and thoughtfully. Well done.

  72. This situation reminds me of LinkedIn’s constant pushes for me to write a recommendation for a friend who died 5 years ago. It’s creepy.

    While I know you suffered from FB’s YIR, I’m glad you took the time to write about it so that social media product managers better understand the trade offs of these things.

  73. Pingback ::

    One Last Mea Culpa For 2014: Facebook Apologizes For A Clumsy Algorithm - PRNewser

    […] 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 […]

  74. ” But I am very sorry that I dropped the Internet on his head for Christmas. He and his team didn’t deserve it.”

    I have to disagree a bit. The people who didn’t deserve to have things dropped on their head were people who just wanted to read their facebook feed without having something shoved down their throat. Especially something so poorly planned. While he may be sympathetic, and that’s great, forethought should have gone into this. And not shoving it down our throats would be great too.

    I totally agree with you that the programers shouldn’t be crapped on as if they may not have also had hard lives…but they still deserve scrutiny for not putting real thought into this before implementing it…especially since it’s forced. If it were optional? Not as big of a deal…but none of us got a choice whether or not we wanted to be inundated with photos of the dead and other painful memories.

  75. Hi Eric. I was a little disappointed when I saw the link to your blog at The Washington Post. I left a message on your original blog post concerning “The Year in Review” App from Facebook. I am very happy to know that you did apologize to Facebook and vise verso. Furthermore, I am very excited… understanding how the publicity generated from your article can help to improve the Facebook experience for users. Perhaps some coders and programmers will be more inspired to help create an even better personal Web experience for us all.

  76. Pingback ::

    Reflection on 2014 | Arthur Hovinc's Port Manteau

    […] the Facebook Year In Review was the right place to share what happened. In fact, quite a bit of hullabaloo came about when terrible life events were framed as celebratory in the Facebook Year In Review for […]

  77. Thank you for the general civility of your post, Eric. I love it when bloggers write with both passion for their craft and respect for others!

  78. I am so sorry for your loss. I hope this doesn’t sound strange, but maybe the whole thing with your post going viral happened so that Rebecca’s spirit could touch more people. Through your photos and post I feel like I can get a sense of her beautiful personality.

  79. Pingback ::

    Learning to be better | Random thoughts

  80. I was on Lynda.com, taking my daily tutorial, and I was on CSS resets and your name was there. So being the tech geek I am, I had to google your name and go to, what I hope, is a new, great source for my ever-thirsty knowledge seeking of web deign.

    I too, have hated the Facebook Year in Review. I am so sorry for your loss. My year also sucked. And they were so invasive.

    Here is to a better 2015! May you and your family have a better year filled with joy and love.

  81. Pingback ::

    Facebook Apologizes For Year in Review | Digital Media Newsroom

    […] Cruelty,” he detailed the pain of being reminded about the loss of his daughter. In a follow-up post, Meyer was contacted by Jonathan Gheller who is the product manager of the Year In Review […]

  82. Pingback ::

    Weekend Reading XCXI : Blogcoven

    […] a useful comment. It’s hardly fair to blame facebook for this or the incident in the article (a point the author himself makes very clearly), honestly, we should not expect these edge cases to dominate our designs, nor should we expect […]

  83. Pingback ::

    Thoughtless Algorithms - Everyday Ambassador

    […] Meyer wrote a follow-up to his original post, astounded and completely surprised by the attention it received. After his […]

  84. Hi Eric,

    Thank you for sharing your experience and for pointing out the flaw of programmed algorithms—but more importantly, thank you for the humility you have shown towards something you have every right to be distraught by. In my honest opinion, yes, Facebook has failed a large number of users with the Year in Review app, but it will hopefully be the beginning of a more thoughtful design process.

    I am incredibly sorry to you and your family for the loss of your beautiful daughter. My most sincere condolences. Take care.

  85. Pingback ::

    My theme for 2015 | Docs by Design

    […] Well, That Escalated Quickly […]

  86. Pingback ::

    Some Light Cyber-Dystopian Reading Recommendations » brelson.com

    […] to the ones mentioned above. Eric Meyer has since posted a follow-up where he states, rightly, that this isn’t a Facebook problem but one common to design teams everywhere — worst-case scenarios or even slightly unusual ones […]

  87. Pingback ::

    Highlighting the benefits of diversity in tech: my mission in 2015 | What it all boils down to

    […] about how this product affected him. One of the common responses he received to that post, which he quoted in a follow up post (and denied) was “What do you expect from a bunch of privileged early-20s hipster Silicon Valley […]

  88. Pingback ::

    Why I Left Facebook and How I'm Thriving Since

    […] course the company didn’t intend for this result, as Eric clearly points out in his follow-up post (in which he apologizes to Facebook, which is perhap…, but that’s what happens when you use computer algorithms to manage people’s personal […]

  89. I just read your article on Slate.com. I didn’t know about you or your story about the year in review until now. First and foremost, I am so sorry for your loss. It is so cruel to lose a child, and I only can imagine how difficult it is to grieve this loss and keep it together for your other children. I struggle to make sense of a world where an innocent child can suffer and die and leave a shattered family behind. I also wanted to commend you both for taking Facebook to task and for your classy ownership of the “viral” nature of the story and your apology to Facebook. I don’t think you owe them anything, but I think it is incredibly insightful and clear headed of you to realize that this didn’t happen because some twentysomethings don’t know pain. That said, I do think giants like Facebook need to start thinking about the real life impact of some of their decisions. I am not a programming expert but think your idea to ASK first if someone wants a year in review is simple and perfect. Things like year in review, the personalized ads, the pressure to “like” stories where there needs to be better, more sensitive choices… the list goes on…. they all at one point or another can be so off base, and hurtful at that. Thank you for holding them accountable. I do hope that this is more than a passing newstory and that your calling them out results in meaningful change, not just on Facebook but on social media and the internet at large. We are people before we are algorithms. Again, my deepest sympathies and best wishes for easier days ahead. I know it won’t ever be better and you never will be the same as before but I do hope that one day it isn’t as painful and difficult to get through the days and to remember your daughter with a smile, even if it is also with a tear.

  90. Pingback ::

    Non siamo cattivi, è che programmiamo così | Life In Low-Fi

    […] Che siate utenti di Facebook o meno, avrete sicuramente sentito parlare, alla fine dell’anno scorso, della simpatica iniziativa “Your Year In Review”. Un sunto automatico dei fatti importanti che Facebook ritiene riassumano in maniera efficace il vostro anno appena trascorso. As usual, buona idea, realizzazione pessima. Oltre ai molti che hanno con entusiasmo accolto l’iniziativa, oltre ai molti che l’hanno gioiosamente classificata sotto un sonoro “MEH”, più di qualcuno ha avuto brutte sorprese: il top si è raggiunto, per quanto ci è dato di sapere, quando un utente si è trovato in copertina del compendio la foto di sua figlia di 6 anni. Morta quello stesso anno. Il povero disgraziato ha descritto (in maniera fin troppo calma e ragionata, a mio avviso) i suoi sentimenti in un post, anzi due. […]

  91. Pingback ::

    Checking back with the execrable Facebook Year in Review | SorryWatch

    […] Oransky, pointed out to us last week was that Meyer then apologized to Facebook! In a post called Well, That Escalated Quickly, he said that Gheller had reached out to him before the mass media coverage of the story (good […]

  92. Pingback ::

    Smart Technologies…may need some EQ (emotional intelligence) | Toward A Sensible Organization

    […] elicit a personal apology from the product manager?) And Mr. Meyer took time and space to actually defend FB against some very nasty comments/reactions to his first post. The irony he pointed out was this: In attacking FB for being insensitive and inflicting blind […]

  93. I commented on Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty and linked to this post on my blog. Once again, thank you for your eloquent and gracious words.

    Forgiving Facebook is a matter of personal choice. I am less inclined to forgive them than you are, because this is not a new problem. I notified them of a very similar issue back in July 2014, and I’m sure I wasn’t the first. If Facebook took these issues seriously, they could do more about them.

    The trouble is, most of the solutions involve making users less likely to like, share, post, and otherwise generate traffic, which in turn means less revenue for Facebook. It is very likely that Facebook’s upper management are pushing for more generation of traffic, and rewarding those who achieve it. The incentives are not in favour of a more compassionate approach.

    This doesn’t make Facebook uniquely evil. Modern corporations are not well known for compassion. But by the nature of Facebook’s business, its transgressions feel more personal.

  94. One other thing — Jonathan Gheller, the individual human being, probably didn’t deserve to have “the Internet dropped on his head for Christmas” (great phrase, BTW). So an apology to him may be appropriate.

    Facebook the corporate entity, and its upper management, are a different story. I doubt they are prepared to make a serious commitment to change Facebook’s ways; but until that happens, it is meaningless for them to make or receive an apology.

  95. “Smaller in scale, but very similar in structure”

    Similarity in structure does not hurt but the “scale” hurts – if its bigger it hurts. A small, small stone does not injure as much as a big will do, bigger and larger stones (though similar in structure) can kill actually.

    The main problem with facebook is its monopoly and the way it has attained it. Imagine the 90’s Microsoft – it would have so many antitrusts and lawsuits had it done this. I am forced to see Like buttons and FB comment boxes on sites and more sites without even an option that asks me prior or lets me turn it off. I am visiting “your” site, why shall I see a third party (FB) comment box? And yet, there is no legal suit against this.

    Had there been a dozen (at least) sites for social net with the crowd distributed I would not be complaining. The big tries to be more big and wants to gobble up all competition – so it has to devise stuffs like “year in review”, buys smaller companies and what-not. And as human beings, we are just enslaved. We never pause to think. We never think how we are just feeding this monopoly. Would we have liked if there was only one company to buy food from? One company to buy clothes from? Only one employer to whom all flocked? Internet is not facebook. Ask Tim Lee. The problem is not with technology but the huge monopolization and stinking monetization. Imagine why no software/scripts like WordPress (wordpress.org) Drupal Joomla are coming up in the last ten years or so. Think!

    Also have a look at http://pi.co/brunello-cucinelli-2/ – some useful thoughts on technology.

  96. Pingback ::

    ACI Interviews: Angela VandenBroek, PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Binghamton | ACI

    […] your Aligned Anxieties presentation, you touch on the ‘algorithmic cruelty’ example with Meyer and the resulting onslaught of commentary. Do you have any plans to expand on that […]

  97. Pingback ::

    Episode One Hundred and Eighty Nine: Ops, Not Apps; The Internet (Of Things); Reviewing Reviewing A Year In Review  : Things That Have Caught My Attention

    […] [1] Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty [2] Well, That Escalated Quickly […]

  98. I came upon your blog in a search about Iphone’s “Memories” bringing up painful results.
    First of all, Eric, if you still get comment notifications, I’m so sorry your daughter Rebecca is not here to drive you both crazy with her nearly-12-year-old sardonic wit. I lost my husband to cancer in February of that same year. The magnitude of your family’s loss is exponential compared to losing a husband and father of our children after having 30 years together. I’m so sorry. I hope you and your family can smile more often than cry when thinking of her.

    Your articles are brilliant and hit an important point. Not everyone’s life consists of ever-smiling perfectly scirpted moments. Now Apple Photos forces “Memories” on you based on similar algorithms, again with no opt-out. And I just got an email from Shutterfly with “your memories from this week 9 years ago,” with the images from a photo order I’d placed back then, of my daughter and dead husband in Rome. Except he was alive then. As you perfectly put it, “I didn’t go looking for grief this afternoon, but it found me anyway, and I have designers and programmers to thank for it.”
    Another “thoughtless” perversion of automated “personalized touchpoints” was a robocall I received from our homeowner’s insurance company on my husband’s birthday a couple years ago, with a chipmunk-style rendition of Happy Birthday. He had been dead for four years at that point. I had of course done the customary death notification on the account years earlier. What kind of cruel joke is that? I cancelled my policy and let them know why.

  99. Pingback ::

    Why I Left Facebook and How I’m Thriving Since – Rebecca Rose Thering

    […] course the company didn’t intend for this result, as Eric clearly points out in his follow-up post (in which he apologizes to Facebook, which is perhaps …, but that’s what happens when you use computer algorithms to manage people’s personal […]

Add Your Thoughts

Meyerweb dot com reserves the right to edit or remove any comment, especially when abusive or irrelevant to the topic at hand.

HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strong> <pre class=""> <kbd>

if you’re satisfied with it.

Comment Preview