Facebook’s ‘Year in Review’ faces backlash over tragic events

Posted at 5:41 PM, Dec 30, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-30 17:41:31-05

In December, Facebook routinely lets users revisit the year by highlighting some their most popular posts and photos in an online scrapbook assembled in part from “likes” and comments.

In the case of Eric Meyer, Facebook’s algorithm brought back painful memories — and prompted the company to apologize.

Meyer, a Web consultant, lost his 6-year-old daughter, Rebecca, in June. When Facebook showed him his suggested year in review, his late daughter’s photo was at the center.

“Yes, my year looked like that. True enough. My year looked like the now-absent face of my little girl,” Meyer wrote in a Christmas Eve post on his blog. “It was still unkind to remind me so forcefully.”

Meyer didn’t blame the algorithms; they’re “essentially thoughtless,” he observed. But, he suggested, Facebook’s human side could have tempered their flaws.

“Where the human aspect fell short, at least with Facebook, was in not providing a way to opt out. The Year in Review ad keeps coming up in my feed, rotating through different fun-and-fabulous backgrounds, as if celebrating a death, and there is no obvious way to stop it,” he wrote. “The design is for the ideal user, the happy, upbeat, good-life user. It doesn’t take other use cases into account.”

Meyer wasn’t the only one who was upset by the Year in Review’s briskly automatic construction. Other users chimed in on Twitter with their displeasure.

“Won’t be sharing my Facebook Year in Review, which ‘highlights’ a post on a friend’s death in May despite words like ‘killed’ and ‘sad day,’ ” wrote Time magazine’s Andrew Katz.

“(M)y preview came up with my little boy & ‘it’s been a great year, thanks for being a part of it’ He died at 15mos in Nov,” wrote peitaballerina in response.

Facebook, which has created an “Empathy Team” to help its employees think of users as, well, people, apologized to Meyer.

“(The app) was awesome for a lot of people, but clearly in this case we brought him grief rather than joy,” Year in Review product manager Jonathan Gheller told the Washington Post. “We can do better — I’m very grateful he took the time in his grief to write the blog post.”

After his first post gained attention — and invited a lot of unpleasant commentary — Meyer, in turn, apologized to the company in a compassionate follow-up.

“I owe the Year in Review team in specific, and Facebook in general, an apology. No, not the other way around,” he wrote. “I am very sorry that I dropped the Internet on (Gheller’s) head for Christmas. He and his team didn’t deserve it.”

The solution, he adds, isn’t to harp on the coders or designers, who often don’t fit the stereotypes commenters ascribed to them. It’s to “anticipate how a design decision that really worked in one way completely failed in another, and work to handle both cases,” he wrote.

“This is such a common failure that it’s almost not a failure any more. It just … is,” he added. “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.”