It is almost impossible to not have seen the “Year in Review” app that Facebook has delivered. Almost everybody has provided with one, which is then posted to their timeline with a message along the lines of “thanks for being a part of a great year.” However, it now seems that Facebook had used a very poor algorithm to create the review and that people have therefore also been confronted with memories they were trying to forget completely. For this mistake, Facebook has now released an official apology.
When you use the Year in Review app, it looks for the posts during the past year that were engaged with the most. These are then placed together in a chronological album that even has a bit of clip art to make it look more cool. It comes with a default tag line, but that can be changed by users. Indeed, the posts that are chosen for the review can also be altered manually by the users.
What matters, however, is that the algorithm chooses moments and photographs by default that were interacted with the most. Unfortunately, these posts often refer to very sad memories. Although users can personalize their own Year in Review, they will still be confronted with these memories as they bring up their post.
One user, Eric Meyer, writer and web design consultant, was confronted with the memory of the death of his young daughter.
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.
Meyer understands that an algorithm does not have feelings and is simply working on the premise of most liked posts. However, to be confronted with an image of his deceased young daughter with the caption “this is what your year looks like” seemed insensitive to say the very least. Meyer added that he knows that it is not a deliberate assault. However, he also felt that Facebook should have been more understanding of the fact that many people did not have a fantastic year and that there were certain things they may not have wanted to see surrounded by cheesy clip arts.
Meyer received a personal apology from Jonathan Gheller, who managed the app itself. He stated that while the app delivered fantastic things for many people, it really fell short in this case. Indeed, according to Gheller, people like Meyer did not receive a sense of joy but rather a sense of grief from the app. Gheller felt that Facebook should take responsibility and do better and he personally thanked Meyer for taking the time to actually write the blog that highlighted this issue.
People had further complaints about the app as well. They felt that it was pushed in their faces too much. It is almost impossible to get away from it and, although it can be fun for people who have had nice years, it can get in the way of having an enjoyable Facebook experience. Indeed, this is something the Washington Post highlighted in particular.
The posts are slickly designed, even if their visual uniformity can make scrolling through a news feed of the digital holiday letters a bit grating. However, in some cases the summaries can go beyond irritating and become downright cruel.
Meyer added a number of suggestions to Facebook to ensure that the app would be more sensitive. For instance, he felt that users should be asked to review each photograph individually before the completed result was shown. No replies have been received from Facebook pertaining specifically to these suggestions. However, users feel that something should be done and it should be done quickly. After all, Facebook has been saying for a long time that they want to see each user as an individual person. Indeed, they even have an empathy team on board.
Speaking at a recent conference, Facebook’s director of product design, Margaret Gould Stewart, said that it now refers to its users not as users anymore — instead they are calling them people. It has changed the internal dashboards from “Daily Average Users” to “Daily Average People.” The company has also created an “Empathy Team” whose task is to make engineers and designers understand what it is like to be a user or an advertiser.
The introduction of the Empathy Team, however, has been met with sneers from across the world. People simply do not believe that changing the word “user” to “people” will make any difference at all. They are just words, after all. Additionally, the idea that there should be an “empathy team” at all would suggest that there is a significant lack of empathy, which is not something that can be managed but rather is a soft skill that you either have or don’t have. That being said, empathy training is very real and effective, but this should be something that is available across the board and not during weekly (if there are that many) empathy team meetings.
Nevertheless, Facebook seems to be committed to humanizing their users. This was mainly as a response to the fact that it was uncovered that they were purposefully manipulating people’s timelines to see whether this would have an effect on their moods and feelings. They did this without notifying their users, who were therefore participating in a psychological experiment without their knowledge or even their consent. As a result, Margaret Gould Stewart, Director of Product Design at Facebook, was keen to show Facebook actually had a human face.
As somebody once said: It’s kind of arrogant to think the only reason people exist is to use what you built. They actually have lives, like, outside the experience they have using your product, and so the first step of designing in a human-centered way is to recognize that they’re humans.
Whether or not any of the efforts of the empathy team will actually deliver better results remains to be seen.