"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: http://blog.iainroberts.com/2014/07/death-and-facebook.html
[Redacted]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: