Do Algorithms Have Feelings? ‘A Year in Review’ Would Say No

Facebook’s ‘A Year in Review’ timeline has been getting a lot of backlash lately and will close 2014 on a bad note. Many users complain that the algorithm had surfaced unpleasant life events and things they didn’t want to relive. Other people said the app was ‘forcing’ itself upon them, which made them feel uncomfortable.  Reading all of this got me thinking “Do people think that Facebook’s algorithm actually has feelings?”

The answer is no and it can teach us a lot about how Facebook currently functions. An algorithm is built so that a specific output comes from user input. In the case of Facebook’s Year in Review, many people wanted to relive all their happy moments and have a timeline that kept controversy outside of it’s quarters. Unfortunately, the algorithm and the user’s follower interactions are what determined the outcome.

New Job Photo from a Year in Review
This was the very first thing that popped up in my Year in Review. Couldn’t say I was surprised.

A former colleague of mine, Scott Kleinberg from the Chicago Tribune pointed out that the default description “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.” was a dumb move by the marketing department and that not everybody had a great 2014. I totally agree with him here, Facebook should have seen this coming.

However…

In Facebook’s case, posts are ranked over a bunch of different variables. Some of them include most liked content, most shared, most popular videos, most popular photos, most comments, etc…Using keyword and pattern recognition Facebook’s algorithm can put certain themes together. For instance, if you started a new job this year it was most likely included in your feed, here’s why:

  1. Look at all of your other friends posts about getting a new job, they typically have the highest interaction of any other post.
  2. “New Job” is a keyword phrase that represents success and people “like” success. Therefore, the algorithm probably has “New Job” or key phrases similar to this listed as a priority somewhere,
  3. Depending on your age, a “new job” could represent a huge milestone in your life, Facebook wouldn’t want your friends to miss that.
  4. New jobs are something Facebook can sell against. Someone who just got a new job might be have to go out and buy new clothes or a watch.
The interaction numbers represent a major occurrence in my life, therefore it's no surprise that it was part of my 'Year in Review'.
The interaction numbers represent a major occurrence in my life, therefore it’s no surprise that it was part of my ‘Year in Review’.

Now on the other hand, a similar occurrence arises with a topic like “death”. Although “new job” and “death” are polar opposites and not related, they overlap in Facebook user behavior patterns. If you had a recent death in the family and you decided to post about it, you might have noticed that there was high interaction on that post. There are several reasons why this post may have ranked in your ‘Year in Review’.

  1. People are humane (for the most part). To console and support another Facebook user that person might “like” or comment on that post. They might write something like “My condolences for your loss, Grandpa Jack was an amazing person.” All the boldfaced text are ranking factors in Facebook. Liking and commenting are the most obvious ways, but writing something positive about Grandpa Jack also helps Facebook realize that an important and meaningful figure has died.
  2. On a broader scale, think about where posts are placed when a famous celebrity dies. They usually rank at the very top of your news feed, right? That’s because these posts are usually filled with people offering their condolences, sharing and liking the status. Similar to a celebrity, Facebook most likely views your personal relationship with the person who had died as being something special to you. Therefore, your friends might see that at the top of their feed, interact with it, and outrank other important posts when it comes time for Year in Review.
  3. That being said, even things like death can be a big part of your year. The way people interpret something like death is subjective. Some people might get disgusted with Facebook’s algorithm ranking something like that, where others might smile and remember all the good times they had with “Grandpa Jack”. For the people who were inspired/positively impacted by the person who died, they might feel offended that someone so special wasn’t included in their timeline. (Note: Where Facebook went wrong here is that they originally wouldn’t allow you to remove the photo or add additional captions.) Hopefully 2015 will allow you to caption each event yourself.

As a side note, I’m taking side with the user here. Facebook should know that some people had a bad 2014, and it was insensitive to have the description text default to “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.” However, I do think that Facebook users need to realize that Facebook is not meant to treat depression. It can be used to make everyone feel happy, reassuring and confident but that’s not its main purpose. Facebook’s main purpose is to centralize communication across as many external platforms as possible and sell across shared interests. That being said, you can’t expect Facebook to deliver happiness 100% of the time (or technology for that matter).

Moving Forward: I hope that you all have a wonderful New Year and if 2014 was a rough year that 2015 brings good karma your way. If you’d like to share a personal story about Facebook’s algorithm that didn’t align with my observations, please contact me for corrections. I will keep all submissions anonymous.

Cheers,

JB

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5 thoughts on “Do Algorithms Have Feelings? ‘A Year in Review’ Would Say No”

  1. Excellent post, and thanks for linking to my column in it. I think Facebook ends up getting so caught up in algorithms that it forgets the power of just a little human interaction.

  2. Agreed Scott! I also find it amazing at how human Facebook becomes when you have ad money to spend. You find yourself in a completely different world.

  3. Facebook didn’t fail with Year in Review, but it forgot that we don’t just celebrate there. Many Facebook pages live on as memorials after their owners pass away.

    It’s good for Facebook to encourage reflection. I look at my news feed and wish my Facebook friends could give their day a bit more thought.

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