Have Confidence in Algorithms

On Christmas Eve Eric Meyer wrote about Facebook’s Year in Review in a post titled Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty. Eric’s daughter died on her sixth birthday this year, and when Facebook suggested he share his Year in Review it featured photo of his daughter and the caption “It’s been a great year.” When he tried to dismiss the prompt the Facebook app crashed.

This is a huge oversight Facebook’s part. Some percentage of their over one billion users experience tragedy every year and shared a relevant photo on Facebook. By choosing the photo that generated the most responses as each user’s cover story it is highly likely that photos from tragic moments appear as the Year in Review prompt. Reading the comments on Eric’s post and on the mainstream media stories about his experience show that there are plenty of people who had a similar experience.

Other comments and responses show a lack of confidence that Facebook, and computer science in general, can do better. Comments say things like “the algorithmic approach… is almost certain to kick us at the end of a bad year” or a comment on the follow-up post: “the year in review algorithm brings things to the fore without understanding. Only humans can do that and the negative aspects only exist in the edge cases.” This is wrong. Facebook can do, and should have done, better, as can any algorithm-based system. In this case eliminating posts with a comment containing the text “for your loss” would have removed many, probably most, of the painful posts from the year in review. Surely Facebook is capable of doing sentiment analysis on each user’s year of posts then making a choice to prompt that user to create a Year in Review or not. If they want to really help maybe they can do something to help or console people who had a terrible year. After the media exposure this year I am sure that Facebook will make changes and avoid this problem next year, they may have fixed it already.

We can do better. When designing any system that will interact with people we can consider those in pain and try, at a minimum, to avoid deepening it. It’s not something that we have done well so far, but Eric is trying to change that, and so should we all.

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