Thursday 25 June 2015

Death and Facebook: Now with extra creepiness

Somewhere in the Facebook servers, an algorithm "pushes" anniversary reminders of your posts. Today, it pushed a photo of my cat Dexter, taken exactly three years ago:

As regular readers of this blog will know, Dexter passed away six weeks ago tomorrow.

How dare Facebook pretend that it cares?

As it happens, I'm OK with seeing this picture. Dexter was a much-loved cat, but he was a cat, not a human family member. I still miss him, but I've largely come to terms with his loss.

That particular photo is one of my favourites. It's my avatar on a number of websites, and I have a framed copy on the windowsill at home. I don't mind seeing it. The push reminded me of something I had forgotten; in the comments, I'd referred to Dexter as Executive Officer for Strategy and Long Naps. Remembering that made me happy.

That's not the point, because Facebook does not know my emotional state.

It wouldn't be particularly difficult to glean from my Facebook posts that Dexter has passed away. On Saturday, I posted to say we had scattered his ashes in our back garden.

Am I at peace with the loss of my beloved cat? Am I raw with grief, so that unexpectedly seeing this photo would ruin my day? Facebook does not know, and it cannot reasonably expect to find out from the content I have posted on it.

The push algorithm isn't even clever enough to notice Dexter's passing. If it was, it could have offered condolences. Automatically generated words of sympathy are creepy in their own right, but at least it would show some consideration for my emotional well-being. Alternatively, it could simply not take the risk of pushing photos of the dead. It could do the software equivalent of sitting down and shutting up.

We can reasonably assume the push algorithm does not take into account whether the subject of the image is deceased.

Facebook has more than a billion users. Today, some of them have been pushed photo reminders. Most of the reactions would range from indifference to amusement; but it is a statistical certainty many are deeply upset, because a cheery reminder of their late pet, friend, or family member was spliced into their Facebook feeds.

I and others have complained about this sort of thing before, regarding the death of human beings as well as pets. It appears Facebook's reaction is to include some creepy, generic text to say they care.

Iain, we care about you and the memories that you share here.

Facebook, go fuck yourselves. Don't insult my intelligence. I know how hollow that statement is.

Facebook cares about users in the same way and for the same reasons a farmer cares about livestock. Facebook's business model is to harvest the experiences of its users, and use them to sell advertising or anonymised data to its paying customers, which are advertisers and marketing companies.

From Facebook's perspective, it matters not if a few users are hurt, so long as the majority have a positive experience and there is a net increase in clicks and pageviews.

Don't tell me you're innocent. It insults my intelligence. It makes me very angry.
--- Michael Corleone, The Godfather

Let us now contrast Facebook with the Blue Cross animal welfare charity.

We adopted Dexter from the Blue Cross, and I set up a JustGiving page for donations in his memory. Thanks to generous contributions from our friends, the total reached £100. At this point, there had been no direct communication with a human being at the Blue Cross; it was all done through JustGiving's web interface.

A few days later, I received a very kind letter in the post from the Blue Cross, thanking me for the donations and expressing sorrow for my loss. Of course the person writing it had never met me, but it was still a humane and respectful gesture. Facebook could learn from that principle.

The developers of the push algorithm are not necessarily bad people. Probably they are very much like myself, software engineers with friends and families, who also have known sorrow from time to time.

The trouble is, their incentives do not favour acting humanely. Often, the best way to avoid upsetting people is not to say anything. Sometimes, the algorithms should sit down and shut up.

In the long run, a less pushy Facebook might benefit from a better relationship from its users; but the immediate impact on pageviews and traffic statistics would be negative. It would take a brave Facebook engineer to say to a senior manager, "This week I implemented something to make the anniversary feature appear less often." Whether the engineers are good people or not, they are part of a corporation with no intrinsic motivation for good behaviour.

Unlike the Blue Cross, Facebook is not a charity. As a public corporation, Facebook is obliged by law to focus on monetary profit. I accept that. What I object to is Facebook's crude and creepy attempt to pretend it is my friend.

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