Sometimes a feature seems like a really good idea, until a backlash from users forces the developer to backpedal rapidly. Facebook finds itself in such a situation this month, after its attempt at a pre-generated “Year in Review” posting triggered bad memories in many users.
The “Year in Review” probably seemed like a grand idea on a whiteboard: An algorithm scans a Facebook user’s profile and identifies the postings with the most engagement, and builds a colorful presentation around those postings. There’s just one downside that the feature’s creators didn’t anticipate: Not all posts with the most engagement are necessarily the happiest. While the algorithm indeed captured cheery events such as weddings, births, graduations, and promotions, it also surfaced deaths, job displacements, injuries, and other events that nobody wants to revisit.
In a much-circulated blog posting titled “Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty,” Web consultant Eric Meyer talked about how the “Year in Review” highlighted photos of his dead daughter. “Algorithms are essentially thoughtless,” he wrote. “They model certain decision flows, but once you run them, no more thought occurs. To call a person ‘thoughtless’ is usually considered a slight, or an outright insult; and yet, we unleash so many literally thoughtless processes on our users, on our lives, on ourselves.”
What Facebook’s developers should have done, he added, is ask for more user input before unleashing such a feature on the world. “First, don’t pre-fill a picture until you’re sure the user actually wants to see pictures from their year,” he wrote. “And second, instead of pushing the app at people, maybe ask them if they’d like to try a preview—just a simple yes or no. If they say no, ask if they want to be asked again later, or never again. And then, of course, honor their choices.”
As The Washington Post pointed out, Facebook reached out to Meyer to apologize. Whether or not the social network opts to repeat the feature next year, the situation can teach a valuable lesson for developers: While whiteboarding a project, take a moment to evaluate whether there’s an unintended human consequence to that cool new feature, especially if the latter relies on private or personal data.
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