The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Facebook’s ‘Year in Review’ app swings from merely annoying to tragic

This Friday, Nov. 14, 2014 photo, shows a board with the Facebook logo inside the new Facebook data centers in Altoona, Iowa. (AP Photo/The Des Moines Register, Charlie Litchfield)
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Unless you're making an active decision to disconnect this holiday season, you've probably seen a flood of Facebook "Year In Review" posts -- a sort of digital card highlighting the biggest moments of 2014, algorithmically customized for each user.

The posts are slickly designed, even if their visual uniformity can make scrolling through a newsfeed of the digital holiday letters a bit grating. However, in some cases the summaries can go beyond irritating and become downright cruel.

The default tagline for the posts is “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.” But not everyone actually had a great year. For some users, the prompts to view their own digital year in review may dig up painful memories.

Eric Meyer, a web design consultant and writer, is one of those people. Earlier this year, he lost his daughter to brain cancer on her sixth birthday. For that reason, Meyer wrote in a blog post, he had actively avoided looking at previews of his own automatically generated summary post.

But Facebook put a personalized prompt advertising the feature in his newsfeed, he wrote, prominently featuring the face of his dead daughter -- surrounded by what appears to be clip art figures having a party.

Meyer is aware Facebook didn't intend to pour salt on his recent wound, and instead thinks of it as a particularly unkind design flaw:

This inadvertent algorithmic cruelty is the result of code that works in the overwhelming majority of cases, reminding people of the awesomeness of their years, showing them selfies at a party or whale spouts from sailing boats or the marina outside their vacation house.
But for those of us who lived through the death of loved ones, or spent extended time in the hospital, or were hit by divorce or losing a job or any one of a hundred crises, we might not want another look at this past year.

He suggests a handful of "obvious" design fixes, like not pre-filling the app with photos unless a user actually wants to see pictures from their year and asking before showing a user a preview of the app. Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment on their design decisions.

But the Facebook "Year in Review" feature highlights a larger digital design problem: Algorithms and code aren't intelligent, they just do what they're told. So unless the programmers consider and plan for the worst-case scenarios, there will be edge cases where the general approach fails.

Update: Jonathan Gheller, the product manager for Facebook's "Year in Review" app said he has reached out to Meyer and is personally very sorry for the pain the preview feature caused Meyer.

"[The app] was awesome for a lot of people, but clearly in this case we brought him grief rather than joy," he told the Post. The team behind the app is considering ways to improve it for next time and will take Meyer's concerns into account, he said, although he did not comment on if they would follow Meyer's specific suggestions.

"It's valuable feedback," Gheller said. "We can do better -- I'm very grateful he took the time in his grief to write the blog post."

The number of interactions and pictures and image gets on Facebook was among the strongest signals in determining which pictures were used for the "Year in Review" product, he said.