Facebook's 'Year In Review' shows tragic side of software's shortcomings

Facebook's automated 'year in review' slideshows are meant to surface highlights from the year that was, but for some the virtual scrapbook simply brings back bad memories. In the case of web designer Eric Meyer, a photo of his recently deceased daughter appeared, surrounded by confetti, illustrations of party goers dancing and the exclamation "Eric, here's what your year looked like!" In response, Eric wrote a blog post about what he refers to as that app's "Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty," and pointing to the shortcomings of modern software design.

While many have complained of the relentless onslaught of ads for automated journals like these, for people like Meyer, the persistence isn't just an annoyance.

"The Year in Review ad keeps coming up in my feed, rotating through different fun-and-fabulous backgrounds, as if celebrating a death, and there is no obvious way to stop it. Yes, there's the drop-down that lets me hide it, but knowing that is practically insider knowledge. How many people don't know about it? Way more than you think."

Eric closed his post calling for "empathetic design," imploring designers of such apps to look beyond "the ideal user, the happy, upbeat, good-life user."

Gigaom founder, Om Malik points out that Facebook recently abandoned its habit of thinking of users as users, instead referring to them as people and going as far as to create an "Empathy Team." In a post exploring Meyer's experience he suggested that what Facebook needs is a shift in culture not just a better algorithm:

"Clearly, Facebook is thinking about these things. And whenever that happens, in the interim, the company has to remember that all the software for these systems for now is written by humans. So it is for humans to define and create empathetic systems, that worry about how the photo of a recently lost daughter might make a dad feel."

Additional reporting by John Colucci