co Algorithm Cruelty and Human Misjudgment |

By now, you probably have seen the “Facebook Year in Review” storm over the way that some users were presented with painful memories from the past year in a happy sort of way. Eric Meyer, an expert web designer, became the inadvertent spokesman for the opposition when he took issue with the practice on his blog. His recent post on the whole subject has some very good points for any business that has an internet presence to consider carefully.

The Problem With Algorithms

What happened to Eric happened to many people when Facebook decided to give them the year in review. The algorithm sifted through events and presented those that had the most easily tracked response metrics…the ‘most popular’ events. The problem? Some things with the most comments and interaction are not good memories.

For Eric, it was a beloved daughter’s death and her photo surrounded by happy icons in his feed with no clear way to make it stop.

For many others, it was pictures of an ex, or just situations they really wanted to forget.  But the algorithm doesn’t know why people clicked on things because all it does is count clicks. I like what one commenter said on the blog post about the ‘like’button not really being used to indicate ‘liking’. It’s the same thing, really. The machines do what the machines are programmed to do.

The Need For People To Pay Attention

This is not a problem exclusive to Facebook. Website design and development is a challenging field because you cannot always predict how the rest of the world will respond to a feature. Marketing campaigns are the same way. Social media has put every error in judgement under a microscope and then broadcast it into a reputation management challenge.

I’m glad that Facebook apologized, but the best thing about this situation has been the increased conversation about the need to pay attention to what is going on. This was Eric’s original point and he made it well.

A feature that works really well in one way can be a big problem in another. We can’t anticipate this every time. But we can pay attention to responses and work to keep the damage minimal. Human misjudgement happens because we are human — algorithm cruelty happens because algorithms are not.