Eric Meyer's Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty got a lot of traction over the past week. He discusses how Facebook's Year in Review app confronted him with a photo of his daughter who died this year.
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.
But 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.
To show me Rebecca’s face and say “Here’s what your year looked like!” is jarring. It feels wrong, and coming from an actual person, it would be wrong. Coming from code, it’s just unfortunate. These are hard, hard problems. It isn’t easy to programmatically figure out if a picture has a ton of Likes because it’s hilarious, astounding, or heartbreaking.
Jeffrey Zeldman wrote a follow-up titled Unexamined Privilege Is The Real Source of Cruelty in Facebook's “Year In Review”.
UNEXAMINED PRIVILEGE is the real source of cruelty in Facebook’s “Your Year in Review”—a feature conceived and designed by a group to whom nothing terrible has happened yet. A brilliant upper-middle-class student at an elite university conceived Facebook, and college students, as everyone knows, were its founding user group. The company hires recent graduates of expensive and exclusive design programs and pays them several times the going rate to brainstorm and execute exciting new features.
But when you put together teams of largely homogenous people of the same class and background, and pay them a lot of money, and when most of those people are under 30, it stands to reason that when someone in the room says, “Let’s do ‘your year in review, and front-load it with visuals,’” most folks in the room will imagine photos of skiing trips, parties, and awards shows—not photos of dead spouses, parents, and children.
At least in my Twitter timeline, I saw plenty of people jump on Zeldman's post to excoriate Facebook engineers for being privileged and heartless. Were there other posts like Zeldman's?
I was really happy to see Meyer do a follow-up where he urged folks to put away the pitchforks and cage the outrage monster the internet loves to summon.
Yes, their design failed to handle situations like mine, but in that, they’re hardly alone. This happens all the time, all over the web, in every imaginable context. Taking worst-case scenarios into account is something that web design does poorly, and usually not at all. I was using Facebook’s Year in Review as one example, a timely and relevant foundation to talk about a much wider issue.
What surprised and dismayed me were the…let’s call them uncharitable assumptions made about the people who worked on Year in Review. “What do you expect from a bunch of privileged early-20s hipster Silicon Valley brogrammers who’ve never known pain or even want?” seemed to be the general tenor of those responses.
No. Just no. This is not something you can blame on Those Meddling Kids and Their Mangy Stock Options.
First off, by what right do we assume that young programmers have never known hurt, fear, or pain? How many of them grew up abused, at home or school or church or all three? How many of them suffered through death, divorce, heartbreak, betrayal? Do you know what they’ve been through? No, you do not. So maybe dial back your condescension toward their lived experiences.
Second, failure to consider worst-case scenarios is not a special disease of young, inexperienced programmers. It is everywhere.
A voice of sanity online? Elsa is working her magic in Hell.
I don't mean to imply there isn't privilege of all forms, or that more diversity isn't a good thing. I believe strongly in both. But if there's one thing that exhausted me about the online community in 2014 it was the never-ending cycle of outrage. And if there's one thing I wish we'd see more of in 2015 it's more reasoned, nuanced debate.
That begins with not misreading Zeldman's post, either. The paragraph that came between the two I quoted above was this:
I’m not saying that these brilliant young designers are heartless, or that individuals among them haven’t personally experienced tragedy—that would be mathematically impossible. I have taught some of these designers, and worked with others. Those I’ve known are wonderful people who want to make a difference in the world. And in theory (and sometimes in practice) a platform like Facebook lets them do that.
Both of Meyer's pieces are worth reading in their entirety, as is Zeldman's piece, whose title and opening paragraph are far more extreme than the rest of the piece.
It feels good to create the “other.” Humans love the ingroup-outgroup dynamics. It's so psychologically comforting to belong to one side and channel one's rage to demonize a common enemy. I'm not asking for artificial harmony but a shift towards more rational, unemotional debate.
How? I'm not sure, but the next time you feel the urge to unleash the rage monster, step back from the keyboard and try to pass Bryan Caplan's ideological Turing test. It's not perfect, but I don't have any better ideas. It takes two to have a reasoned debate. You count as one. Empathy creates the other.