Rebecca Alison Meyer died on her sixth birthday in June this year, and in a blog post about her death, her father Eric Meyer, a Web designer and writer, wrote, "I feel the weight of all the years she will never have, and they may yet crush me." Contributing to his pain: Facebook’s “Year in Review” app, a digital card that automatically pops up in each user’s feed that features the users’ most-liked images surrounded by drawings of festive figures with the tagline: “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being part of it.” His “Year in Review” image was a picture of his dead daughter.
Meyer wrote a blog post criticizing Facebook’s “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty,” which went viral, culminating in Facebook's “Year in Review” product manager Jonathan Gheller apologizing to Meyer and telling the Washington Post that he knew Facebook could “do better.” Although Meyer wrote a follow-up post to clarify that he was not trying to attack the “Year in Review” team, but rather to highlight a failure to consider “worst case scenarios” and to encourage “empathetic design,” for some, it was an opportunity to examine how a team of programmers couldn’t have anticipated that not everyone’s year was filled with parties and joy.
Meyer’s initial post acknowledged that the “Year in Review” was not “a deliberate assault.” At the same time, he criticized Facebook’s disregard for whether users wanted to see pictures from their year, and instead “pushing the app at people.”
In a follow-up post voicing surprise that his post went viral, Meyer wrote that he was “dismayed” about the “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.” Instead, Meyer wrote that he wanted to focus on how the failure to consider worst-case scenarios is “everywhere” and “not a special disease of young, inexperienced programmers.”
But for Web design news blogger Jeffrey Zeldman, Meyer was being too charitable. It wasn’t the “Hal”-like coldness of a machine's “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty” that was to blame – it was precisely the failure in “empathetic design.” And the source of that failure? The “unexamined privilege” of those who are the bulk of the designers of apps such as Facebook's "Year in Review," which underscored the need for diversity in tech.
“[W]hen 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," he wrote, "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.”
Zeldman argues that this highlights the need for diversity in tech, not, as affirmative action detractors would argue, because of “quota systems,” but because of the mix of experiences those programmers would bring to designs that might have avoided the insensitivity of Facebook's "Year in Review."
“If we keep throwing only young, mostly white, mostly upper-middle-class people at the engine that makes our digital world go, we’ll keep getting camera and reminder and hookup apps —things that make an already privileged life even smoother — and we’ll keep producing features that sound like a good idea to everyone in the room, until they unexpectedly stab someone in the heart," wrote Zeldman.
So my (beloved!) ex-boyfriend's apartment caught fire this year, which was very sad, but Facebook made it worth it. pic.twitter.com/AvU8ifazXa
â€” Julieanne Smolinski (@BoobsRadley) December 29, 2014