In 2013 I asked whether social media were mature enough to handle bereavement in a sensitive manner. Last week Facebook released the options either to have your account deleted when you die or to nominate a trusted legacy manager to take it on for you as a memorial (Facebook rolls out feature for users when they die ).
This was in response to the distress of relatives who wished to retrieve a lost loved one’s account or did not want to undergo the the eerie experience of receiving automated reminders of their birthday or seeing their name or image appear unexpectedly in advertising. The enforced “Year in Review” offerings at the end of last year brought some publicity to the issue, as they also inadvertently caused distress by failing to consider the feelings of people who had suffered bereavements during the year. The original blog post about this (Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty ) went Viral last Christmas. The author quickly called for an end to a wave of casual responses that jumped to glib conclusions about young privileged staff just not thinking about anything bad ever happening (Well, That Escalated Quickly ).
A more cynical response is that there was a deliberate dismissal as ‘Edge cases’ of the minority of people who would not want to have year in review posts – possibly even a coldly calculated costs v. benefits decision, as providing “opt out” options might have required additional work or been seen as dispensible mouseclicks.
I have no idea what happened at Facebeook, or what discussions, processes, and procedures they go through, the public apologies from Facebook do not go into that level of detail. However, “algorithmic cruelty” may be unintentional, but it is not a new phenomenon and in any project there are plenty of opportunities during the design and implementation of any project to think through the potential adverse impacts or pitfalls.
David Crystal at an ISKOUK conference in 2009 talked about the problem of avoiding inappropriate automated search engine placement of advertisements, for example ads for a set of kitchen knives alongside a story about a fatal stabbing. There was a certain naivety with early automated systems, but it did not take long for the industry in general to realise that unfortunate juxtapositions are not unusual incidents. Most people who have worked in semantics have plenty of anecdotes of either cringeworthy or hilarious mismatches and errors arising from algorithmic insensitivity to linguistic ambiguity.
Facebook’s latest thoughtlessness arises more from a failure to respect their users than through lack of sophistication in their algorithm (there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly complex about selecting photos and bunging some automated captions on them). Simply offering users the choice to look or not look or giving users the tools to build their own would have spared much heartache.
The origins of UX championed by people such as Don Norman and Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld placed user needs front and centre. Good design was about seeing your users as real people with physical and emotional needs as human beings, and designing to help their lives go more smoothly, rather than designing to exploit them as much as possible.