In a further example of the ways in which Facebook's corporate team can be a little short-sighted about human existence, the company got a very public drubbing over the holiday week after web consultant and blogger Eric Meyer wrote about being faced with a cruel reminder of his daughter's death in the auto-generated Year In Review app. Facebook has now apologized for what Meyer called their "inadvertent algorithmic cruelty," as the Washington Post reported over the weekend, or at least they apologized to him for not having the same "awesome" year that they believe most everyone else had. But Meyer's criticism, along with several other highly publicized events in Facebook's year, point to a larger blindness that many of the people who work at Facebook seem to have with regard to the social and emotional impacts of their platform. So let's do a Year in Review of Facebook as a corporation, shall we?
Meyer's viral post struck a chord. His daughter died of brain cancer on her sixth birthday back in June, and her face showed up front and center in his Year in Review under the standard, cheery heading, "Eric, here's what your year looked like!", along with the standard closer, "It's been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it." It takes some pretty youthful naivete to believe that the majority of Facebook users would even be able to say "It's been a great year!" let alone to ignore the fact that a number of users very probably had a terrible 2014.
The Year in Review app took a simple formula pulling out photos that had lots of Likes and comments that works just fine for people who are, say, between the ages of 18 and 35, just graduated college, found a boyfriend or girlfriend, bought a house, got married, had a baby, and/or took a bunch of awesome vacations and did a bunch of awesome hanging out with their friends. As the product manager behind the app, Jonathan Gheller, told the Washington Post in the wake of Meyer's post, "[The app] was awesome for a lot of people, but clearly in this case we brought him grief rather than joy."
Yeah. As Meyer writes, "The design is for the ideal user, the happy, upbeat, good-life user. It doesn’t take other use cases into account." His suggestion: Why not just have had a simple opt-out option without the auto-fill-in photo so that people could decide whether to review their year or not? Anyone who had a shitty year went through a divorce, say, or lost their apartment in a fire would know that the photos that got the most Likes or comments in their particular 2014 are not necessarily ones they care to relive, or have formatted with confetti and pastel paint smears around them.
Recent studies have confirmed that Facebook use has a small but detrimental effect on the overall well-being of people, increasing feelings of envy and loneliness while it ostensibly keeps us better connected. But Facebook as a company has ways of making that worse, with the Year In Review being a primary example.
As enormous an entity as Facebook now is, employing over 8,000 smart people primarily in the Bay Area, they've still managed to make some jaw-droppingly dumb moves this year that point to a lack of foresight, empathy, concern for privacy, or social intelligence among their executive team something that becomes problematic when your site is trying to serve the wildly diverse social needs of 864 million active daily users.
Facebook, here's what your year looked like!
- Right after the new year began in January Facebook was sued by two users over their practice of scanning private messages for links in order to target ads. As of last week, that case is now going to trial.
- Though Facebook was not unique in having to comply with NSA spying requests on accounts, they admitted via a February report to disclosing data from between 5,000 and 6,000 accounts due to government requests.
- Also back in February, Facebook made many in the trans and genderqueer and gender fluid communities happy by making available dozens of gender and pronoun options on profiles. Many would argue they were years late in getting around to this.
- In April Facebook dumped $22 billion on WhatsApp, an investment that still looks "profoundly unprofitable," per the Times.
- In June it came to light that Facebook had been performing a bizarre social experiment on some users, manipulating the newsfeeds of some 700,000 people to gauge their emotional reactions. Four months later they issued a policy change that said they were not going to stop performing research on users, but that they were going to be less secretive and invasive about it.
- A controversy gained worldwide attention in September after a number of San Francisco drag queens started making a stink over the fact that Facebook was threatening to lock them out of their accounts unless they used their legal names on their profiles (a story broken by SFist). The controversy struck a chord with victims of domestic violence, teachers, trans people, and others who wanted to be able to use Facebook to connect with friends without having to use their real names. After weeks of back-and-forth and a growing public outcry, Facebook backed down and apologized, even though they say users can still only have one name.
- An earlier statement by Mark Zuckerberg came to light expressing a fairly ignorant and anti-intellectual stance on the topic of only allowing users to go by their given, legal names, saying, "You have one identity... Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity."
- Zuckerberg sounds once again fairly clueless about human nature during a Q&A in which he answers questions about why Facebook doesn't have a "Dislike" button yet. "[What] I think is very valuable is that there are more sentiments that people want to express than just positivity or that they like something," he said. "[But] I don’t think that’s socially very valuable or good for the community to help people share the important moments in their lives [if you're allowed to dislike things]."
- The year ends with apparently all of Brazil trolling Zuck's Facebook profile and posting thousands of comments in Portuguese.
With the news this week that all of our Facebook posts, going back forever, have now been indexed and can be searched by keyword, the massive collective diary that is Facebook just became that much more powerful, and potentially exploitable.
The long and the short of it is that Facebook doesn't think too much about serving people who a) want to keep their lives at least somewhat private or keep their online life somewhat anonymous; b) are leading unconventional lives; c) aren't leading especially happy lives full of happy pictures; or d) had something terrible happen to them that they opened up about on the site. This is perhaps because people who work at Facebook have a tendency to forget that not all Facebook users are like them, i.e. well off, educated, stable people in the prime of their lives with not a lot of complaints.
On a broader sociological level, though, the site has provided an unprecedented and often uncomfortable arena for people to find pity, or sympathy, or empathetic rage among their friends and family when bad things happen to them. And maybe it's good that 2014 closed out with the Facebook brass getting one more reminder that we live in a world where bad things happen, things that don't end with exclamation points or 100 comment variants of "that's awesome." More and more as we grow up these bad things are going to happen on Facebook, which has a way of inadvertently, algorithmically amplifying the bad with the good.