Algorithmic Cruelty vs. Compassionate Design

We associate the days leading to a New Year to new beginnings, new undertakings and resolutions. It is often a time when we review what has happened to us, the happy times and those that remind us of the impermanence and the cycles of life.

Certain circumstances can help us benefit from this social pattern. The fact that many of us have holidays means we have a bit of extra time to reflect on our past and plan (or fantasise about) our future. The embodiment of old age in a grandfather can show us glimpses of what old age might look like for us, while children can remind us of carefree times. Different families have different ways of experiencing the season and some of habits might be more conducive to connection, reflection and personal growth than others.

But how does technology affect these habits?
The New Year is of course preceded by Christmas for many, and much technology is recruited to the marketing and buying frenzy evident at every turn. Marketing is designed to change behaviour in ways that benefit company profits.  While shopping might sometimes bring us hedonic pleasure, it is seldom a source of meaning and personal growth. I personally, can't kick the feeling that extreme consumerism is antithetical to personal growth.

But while technology can be used to drive consumerist behaviour, it can also support positive social patterns. Expressing gratitude, reflecting on significant moments and just connecting meaningfully with others are some of the positive experiences that can be facilitated by new technologies.  This is arguably what Facebook was aiming for when they introduced the Year in Review feature. The controversy this new feature generated has made me think about some positive computing design issues.

Eric Meyer, a leading web designer posted an interesting critique. His daughter passed away in 2014 and he recounts how he felt 'jarred' by the repeated reminders of how great the year had been for other people in his news feed. The feature became upsetting when Facebook tried to coerce him to create his own, and by showing his daughter's photo as a default cover. "Algorithmic cruelty" he called it. Eric, and many others who had a bad year, do not want Facebook to force them into reflection. These are intimate moments and subtle differences in design that can make a monstrous difference.

The Year in Review feature was a simple selection of  photos and posts for the year. Nothing too fancy. Yet a series of unfortunate design elements had a negative impact for many. The default message "It's been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it." starts with the premise that the year was great for all. The vast majority might have had a 'good enough' year so they might not cringe at the idea of 'authoring' this extremely positive version. But for a minority, what Meyer calls the "edge-cases, worst-case scenarios" this first sentence is insensitive. The simplistic defaults and forced generalisations leave us longing for more compassion--acknowledgement for what we have suffered. It does not respect the nature of things, that we have happy moments and we have unhappy ones in life.

Facebook follows 'best practice' in promoting gratitude, albeit in a simplistic fashion. Expressing gratitude is important not only for the one receiving, but also for the one expressing it. But then Facebook's design also misses an opportunity: It does not make it easy to change the default, and it makes it all too easy to leave the default as is, doing away with the opportunity for the user to 'feel' the act of gratitude. It reduces the human connection to a simple clickthrough, an information exchange.

It is very hard for designers and engineers to go beyond traditional UX and consider the impact a feature might have on users' wellbeing, yet this is another example of why we need to get better at it.

For some ideas, check out our book on positive computing.