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The problem with Facebook’s “Year in Review”

Reuters/Eduardo Munoz
Even if it’s not something happy.
By Sonali Kohli
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Facebook is currently awash with year-end collages, compilations of users’ most popular and engaging photos, packaged under the tagline, “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.” (These are the defaults—the text and photos can be changed.) If you look at a friend’s “Year in Review,” or just log on, you may find Facebook has generated one for these for you—ready-made and hovering in your feed until you share it.

But algorithm-generated bonhomie can be problematic. What if you haven’t had a great year? What if Facebook is resurfacing an unhappy memory, and surrounding it with party images?

That’s what happened to web consultant and author Eric Meyer, he wrote on his blog:

“Eric, here’s what your year looked like!”
A picture of my daughter, who is dead.  Who died this year.
Yes, my year looked like that. True enough. My year looked like the now-absent face of my little girl. It was still unkind to remind me so forcefully.

Meyer 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 the Twitter analytics app ThinkUp made a similar mistake: it described the link he tweeted to his daughter’s obituary as his “most popular shared link.” It was accompanied by an exhortation along the lines of “you must be doing something right—people loved what you had to say!”

(Facebook did not respond to a weekend request for comment; we will update this post when the company does.)

Facebook has apologized to Meyer, according to his recent blog post. Jonathan Gheller, the ”Year in Review” app product manager, told the Washington Post he had apologized, and that the team would work to improve the app, though he didn’t offer specifics.”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,” he told the Post [via Time].

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