When I saw the "Year in Review" post on the top of my Facebook News Feed, I groaned. With its bright-colored, confetti-like designs, it was menacing me. "See your year!" it said, begging me to reopen the wounds of 2014. And I couldn't help looking through it, as if I was deriving some sort of masochistic pleasure from seeing photos of my ex-boyfriend and I with our arms around one another.
Don't get me wrong, though — I had a good year. I graduated from college. I moved into the cutest little apartment with my best friend. I was lucky. My "Year in Review" indeed highlighted these moments (which rehashed intense feelings of nostalgia, but that's another issue), but it also reminded me of all the bad things that happened to me this year. The montage included a photo of me and my grandfather, who recently passed away.
The default caption Facebook provides us to share our story with is: "It's been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it." Well, what if it wasn't such a good year for someone? What about all the people whose 2014 was marked by tragedy?
Unsurprisingly, my pain was nowhere near the magnitude of others.
Web design consultant and writer Eric Meyer, who lost his daughter to brain cancer earlier this year on her sixth birthday, wrote a blog post entitled "Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty," which addresses the fact that the preview for his "Year in Review" post featured her photo accompanied by graphics of people partying.
I'll let Meyer do the explaining:
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.
And I know, of course, that this is not a deliberate assault. 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.
For those of us who lived through the death of loved ones, or spent extended time in the hospital, or were hit by divorce or losing a job or any one of a hundred crises, we might not want another look at this past year.
In an email to the Washington Post, Jonathan Gheller, the product manager for Facebook's "Year in Review" app, said he has reached out to Meyer to apologize for any pain the preview feature caused him.
"[The app] was awesome for a lot of people, but clearly in this case we brought him grief rather than joy," Gheller said. He explained that the team behind the app is considering ways to improve it for next time and will take Meyer's concerns into account.
Meyer was surprised by the apology. In his newest blog post entitled "Well, That Escalated Quickly," he says he didn't expect anyone to read his previous post other than some friends and family. He didn't mean to incite so much anger on the internet, so for that he apologizes. He could tell that Gheller's apology was sincere.
What we should take from this doesn't have to do with confronting our pasts. It's not about appreciating what we've experienced. We should be able to let go of the past, if we feel like it. This is a lesson in the fact that there isn't an algorithmic code for everything. In matters known to evoke emotion — in this case, memories — the human touch is not only preferable, it's essential.
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