Facebook Apologizes For "Year in Review" Tool Mishap After It Brings Up Too Many Sad Memories
Have you tried Facebook's "Year in Review" feature yet? It basically grabs your most-liked pictures from 2014, and compiles them into a festive collage to help you relive the last 12 months. Except unfortunately some Facebook users' most "liked" pictures of the year were actually pretty sad, and the automatically-generated collage caused them much emotional pain — so much so that Facebook ended up apologizing for their "Year in Review" tool, which ended up being way more tragic than they had ever intended. But this won't make the ups and downs of digital life go away.
Honestly, there are plenty of reasons not to like Facebook's "Year in Review" tool. It encourages you to directly compare your life to others' lives, it relies heavily on what other people "liked" instead of what was meaningful to you, it bums out people who honestly didn't have such a great year. But these objections pretty much apply to social media in general, so if you genuinely want to stop exposing yourself to other people's standards or your own mediocre past, you should probably quit social media services like Facebook and Timehop altogether.
The shortcomings of this tool in particular became widely acknowledged when Eric Meyer, who lost his daughter to cancer this year, blogged about the "inadvertent algorithmic cruelty" of Facebook's "Year in Review," which placed a photo of his recently-deceased daughter on the cover of his album. Meyer, who wasn't blaming Facebook so much as he was pointing out an "unfortunate" design flaw, makes some useful suggestions for improving the tool, like not pre-filling cover photos without the user's consent, and making it easier to either preview content or hide it forever. Jonathan Gheller, Facebook's product manager for "Year in Review," has apologized, noting that "[The app] was awesome for a lot of people, but clearly in this case we brought him grief rather than joy," and promising future improvements.
I had a related experience with the "Year in Review" app myself when the tool populated my collage with a photo of me and my grandmother, who died earlier this year (although the death of one's grandmother hardly compares to the death of one's young child). Photos from my recent wedding happily crowded out my announcement of my grandmother's death from my collage's cover, but a selfie I posted when I wrote about her life and death became the oversized feature photo for my autumn "highlights."
But I can't help but feel as though the "Year In Review" feature and its one-size-fits-all algorithms isn't such a bad thing — it's just re-telling the parts of our story we already chose to share. I knew the second I chose to open "Year in Review" that this image would probably be included. I didn't enjoy thinking about my grandmother's death again, but I live my life online, so having the photo included was kind of fitting. It was a part of my Facebook story that I had chosen to share, and many of my friends and "friends" did respond to it.
At the end of the day, you can only get out of Facebook what you put in. If you, like me, post large swaths of your life on Facebook — good and bad and everything in between — then that is the content its various algorithms will pick up on and show you again as it looks back at your last 12 months of activity. Digital pictures mean that photos of your friends and family are always just a click or notification away, but so too are the pictures of your dearly departed, ex-spouses, and more.
The very appeal of "Year in Review" is that it is extremely easy to generate and view, with just a few clicks. If "Year in Review" had compiled its data in a more complex (and context-sensitive) manner by allowing users to do things like choose the cover (like in a regular hand-crafted photo album), many fewer people would have used and enjoyed it — though that could be a worthwhile tradeoff, especially considering cases like Mr. Meyer's (who has written more on the issue himself, having seen his objections to "Year in Review" mischaracterized across the web).
Still, if you were to receive a piece of mail addressed to a recently-deceased loved one, you'd readily recognize that some machine out there was just (crudely) doing its job. Facebook's "Year In Review" is much the same. Facebook isn't necessarily wrong in inferring that pictures that receive the most engagement on our timelines — even those that are sad or bring up unhappy memories — are an important part of our year. Sadness is the longest-lasting emotion, and unfortunately no amount of social media tweaks can change that.
Images: Pamela Hobart/Facebook (2)