The Other Face of Facebook

by Tom Davis

In Algorithms We Trust? What was Facebook Thinking?

Facebook likes to do fun things for its users, and generally it does want to protect its users. But as social media gets more fully integrated into our culture, things that were once fun and easy get more serious and harder to do. (This is my daily experience with building websites these days.)

So Facebook thought it would be fun for users to make a "Year in Review" post. But because Facebook wants to make it as easy as possible, they came up with an algorithm that created the post for you. So here is a problem: the algorithm assumes that if people "Liked" something you posted about that it must be a highlight that you want in your year in review. But wait... any action on Facebook is a "Like". There is no "Dislike" or "Sorry" or some other emotion. Plus, people are not just posting things that make them happy. A few years ago you would not think about posting "Hey! Our house is on fire!" But today people do this all the time. I had a friend post the video of the fire engines at their house fire.

The "Year in Review" idea went horribly awry when it offered users reminders of events in their year that were presented in a wholly insensitive way. I saw this in Forbes. This was truly sad:

This year, web designer Eric Meyer lost his six-year-old daughter Rebecca to brain cancer so he did not have any interest in creating a Year In Review slideshow to share with his Facebook friends. However, Facebook’s algorithms automatically created a slideshow for him with his daughter’s face in the center of the first slide with some holiday-themed clip art. Facebook displayed the slideshow at the top of his News Feed on December 24th, asking him if he wanted to customize and share his Year In Review.

So while the algorithm that Facebook setup was probably quite sophisticated, it was not sensitive to either the type of content it presented or how and when it presented to the user. If social media wants to really claim a place in our lives they will need to learn how to do this. Otherwise they will be ridiculed and marginalized just like a movie star or politician that makes one idiotic comment after another.

I still wonder about the conflict that Eric Meyer's friends and family went through before they clicked the only emotion available: "Like".