Monday 7 July 2014

Death and Facebook

"There were things to suggest to a thinking man that the Creator of mankind had a very oblique sense of fun indeed, and to breed in his heart a rage to storm the gates of heaven." --- Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

Social media has unexpected consequences.

Today I saw a post on Facebook by a woman whose baby had just died. I don't know this woman, or her husband. To the best of my knowledge, I have never met either of them. They are not on my Facebook "friends" list. All I have to say to them is that this is a terribly sad loss. I cannot imagine what it feels like, but even though they are total strangers my heart goes out to them.

I am sure Facebook's privacy settings were the last thing on their minds; so it would seem the post is "public". Of course the post attracted many comments, including at least one from a friend of mine (in both the real and Facebook senses of the word). The post is promoted to friends of the mother's friends, and so it shows up in my newsfeed, with the ultimate aim of generating more pageviews and more revenue for Facebook.

(By "Facebook" I mean the corporate entity established by law and designated by symbol FB on the Nasdaq exchange, with share price $66.29 and market capitalization $170,123,160,000 at the time of writing.)

I am left feeling as though I have violated someone's privacy. If we are to live as decent human beings, words like "friend" and "privacy" must mean something more than the expression of preferences on a website.

An algorithm running on a server somewhere in the world recognised the death of this child as an event to be processed like any other. That algorithm was probably designed by someone very much like me, a software developer with a family, friends, hobbies, perhaps children of his or her own. Maybe the developer did not anticipate the algorithm behaving in this way; or does not find the idea as disturbing as I do; or simply does not consider it any of his or her business, and only wants to efficiently maximize Facebook's performance so far as computational and legal constraints allow.

Preventing this sort of incident is not trivial. My PhD is in computational linguistics so I know quite a lot about the challenges involved. If dear old Uncle Fred has died at the age of 103, or you are shocked by the demise of a Hollywood celebrity, you probably won't mind if your post is spread far and wide.  Algorithms can be trained to tell the difference between this and the death of a child, but it is not necessarily a simple task. Nevertheless, if Facebook's management have a shred of decency, I would urge them to consider this incident and upgrade their code accordingly.

This is the world in which we now live. Whether by accident or design, Facebook's algorithm saw the death of a child as just another event which generated interest, as measured by pageviews on the Internet, and so could be exploited to generate corporate revenue. I find this deeply disturbing. The future is both more banal and more terrifying than the nightmares of science fiction writers.

Always look on the bright side of life

There is another, tangential matter. One of the comments said, "Cheer up! Everything happens for a reason. God bless you both!" to this couple whose child had just died.

I imagine this comment was meant well. Perhaps the bereaved parents even found some comfort in it. If that is so, it is a deeply personal matter for them alone.

Not everyone would react well to such a comment. I am an atheist. I seldom go out of my way to talk about it on this blog or in my personal life, but I have given the matter a great deal of thought and am very clear in my beliefs.

Children die every day. Sometimes the child dies in an act of violence, or for lack of food, water or medicine, and so could have been saved by the right human intervention. Sometimes, as in the example I saw on Facebook, it is an event beyond modern medicine to anticipate or forestall.

We are human beings, clever apes who share more than 98% of our genetic material with the chimpanzee. We live on a puny rock circling an insignificant star in an unremarkable galaxy in an incomprehensibly vast universe. We struggle and try to build better lives for ourselves, our loved ones, and other living things. Sometimes we fail. Through our malice or stupidity or natural forces beyond our control, things go terribly wrong, and children die. No additional "reason" is needed.

I want nothing to do with an all-powerful intelligence who could save these children, but chooses not to as part of some inscrutable plan.

One more thing, and I think many religious believers would agree with me here: If I am experiencing deep personal grief, do not tell me to cheer up. I have a right to my sadness. It is natural and healthy and inevitable to be sad under these conditions. The sadness will diminish, but it will never go away entirely. Nor should it; grief is a way of showing respect and love for those we have lost.

If the sight of devastating grief makes you uncomfortable, you have the option of quietly going somewhere else, instead of presuming to tell people to cheer up.

If I am mourning the death of a loved one who passed away that very same day, and you tell me to cheer up, I will reply with the greatest sincerity that you can go fuck yourself.

This, of course, is another consequence of social media. A thoughtless remark once would have been witnessed by a handful of people; now, it is broadcast to hundreds of total strangers, including friends of friends of friends as defined by the Facebook network.

Update: Contacting Facebook

I have just sent the following message on Facebook's feedback form:
A post by [redacted] appeared in my news feed today, relating to the death of her child: [link redacted] 
I have never met [redacted]. It is grossly inappropriate for Facebook to promote such a personal post of hers to friends of friends such as myself. I have no wish to see it and I think it is very unlikely [redacted] would want it to appear on my timeline. I urge Facebook to review its policy on wider promotion of posts and take action to prevent this sort of incident. I have written about this in greater detail on my blog:
Best regards
Facebook states: "We don't typically respond to feedback emails, but we're reviewing them."

So we shall see if I receive a reply.

In case you need some light relief after all this, here is Monty Python singing:


  1. A couple of points which may not have been clear in my original post:
    1) The Facebook post by the bereaved mother was very dignified and well-written. It appears she deliberately shared it with all of her Facebook friends, so in that sense it was not "private". But I do not think she wanted it to be promoted to hundreds if not thousands of total strangers such as myself.
    2) Some of this is about my rights and reasonable expectations. I log onto Facebook for a little light entertainment and to see how my friends are doing, not to be subjected to the bereavement of complete strangers. Facebook has not broken any laws by doing this, but it's still bad behaviour on their part.

  2. I just wrote a long response but it erased itself!

    I followed a link you placed on another blog to this post.

    The gist of my response was that you may not have wanted to see the post, but I don't doubt that the bereaved mother wanted you to see it. My baby died this past year, too. If he hadn't died, I still would've posted about it. His life, birth, death and continued absence are the hugest things in my life; how could I not post about them? Ignoring or dissociating them would not be helpful to the process of grief. But this woman's post, this friend-of-a-friend's words, not only educated you about infant loss, it also provoked you to think about infant loss and to educate others about infant loss. In a world where people (in "real life") often respond to hearing that your baby died by literally turning and walking out of the room, or looking away, or saying something horrifically insensitive (far worse than "things happen for a reason", in many instances), her post was a great success. It caused you to think about the kind of support you would offer if your own friend or acquaintance was in that situation. You probably hold your own kids a little closer, too, after the (admittedly jarring) reminder that they could so easily be gone. You may not have wanted to see her post, but I'd bet that she would be glad you did see it. (She probably doesn't want to see any posts about people having healthy babies that live and get to go home from the hospital and grow up - I know that I absolutely don't want to see those posts - but I don't expect anyone to pretend that their child doesn't exist, just because the existence of their child makes me more uncomfortable and sorrowful than they will ever comprehend. So I simply click "hide" or "unfollow".)

    1. *If he hadn't died, I still would've posted about *his birth*

    2. Thanks for stopping by, and my condolences for your loss.

      I don't think either of us should presume to know what this bereaved mother was thinking. If you want to make your own tragedy into an opportunity to educate others that is admirable, but not everyone would feel the same way.

      "Hide" and "unfollow" are only useful if you expect to be bothered by someone on an ongoing basis. By the time I realised what this post was, the damage was done.

      Facebook is not just another source of entertainment. For example, a certain TV channel here in the UK shows mindless fluff, and sells a lot of advertising to charities. So often the repeats of Frasier are interspersed with harrowing, heartbreaking images of starving children. If that bothers me, I can choose not to watch this channel, do without my Frasier episodes or buy the box set instead. It's not a serious impact on my life.

      OTOH, a lot of important and enjoyable social interaction takes place on FB. If I boycott FB, I will miss out on this and it can't be easily replaced, so I am likely to keep visiting.

      FB's management are well aware of this, which is why they are (now) a $225 billion company, but they have absolutely no interest in living up to the responsibility which comes with that power. The incident in my post was 5 months ago, and as other blog entries make clear, FB has not changed its behaviour:

    3. Also, cruelty by Facebook is not routine. Months go by when it is pleasant and entertaining, and makes you happy by connecting you with your friends. So you let your guard down, and something like this is all the more shocking when it takes place.

  3. Thx for video, it's brilliant.

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