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Can Facebook Screen Out Unhappy Memories?

No matter how good your 2014 was, most of us have at least a few moments we’d rather forget. So what if you were forced to visually re-live them all over again?

That’s exactly what’s happening to at least some Facebook users thanks to the platform’s “Year in Review” feature—a feature that’s technically optional, but that users will find themselves heavily prompted to activate, even if their memories of the year aren’t all so fond.


Year in Review is meant to be fun. It’s a strictly visual feature, drawing on all the photos you’ve posted in 2014. But Facebook chooses which photos to feature automatically, based on a somewhat dubious metric: how much engagement they had. That means that photos that drew lots of comments are likely to crop up, whether they were from celebrations or tragedies.

As Business Insider reports, that algorithm can have onerous results for anyone who’s grieving. The loss of a family member entails photos and memorials that can get dozens or hundreds of sympathetic comments. Likewise, photos of a departed loved on from before their death may be among those that Year in Review features prominently.

That’s exactly what happened to bereaved father Eric Mayer. According to his blog, he initially didn’t want to activate Year in Review at all. Mayer recently lost his 6-year-old daughter. He expected that if he used the feature pictures of her would should up, and decided against it. Understandably, 2014 wasn’t exactly a year he wanted to look back on.

But Facebook kept prompting him to turn on Year in Review. After seeing the message enough times, he decided it would be easier to just turn it on and ignore it—after all, each new prompt reminded him of his daughter.

Unfortunately, once activated Year in Review isn’t so easy to ignore. Mayer’s Review highlighted various pictures from throughout his year. And on Christmas Eve Facebook selected a picture of his daughter to display at the top of his feed, just when he was hurting most.

Mayer doesn’t argue that the Year in Review is accurate. His point goes much deeper: there are parts of the past year that people really, really, shouldn’t be reminded of if they don’t want to be. Year in Review has no way of adjudicating whether a high-engagement photo is a good memory or a bad one, which means it’s not always the fun stroll down memory lane it’s meant to be.

boofacebookTo their credit, Facebook staff agreed and apologized for the insensitive effects of Year in Review. They have no plans to nix the app, but say they want to “improve” the feature for next year. And that leaves us with questions: how exactly can Facebook decide, on an algorithmic level, what’s a good memory for the scrapbook and what’s better left in the past?

There are several ways Facebook could screen for unhappy memories, none of them foolproof:

  • Screen out photos based on keywords in the comments like “memorial,” “tragedy,” “you will be missed,” etc.;
  • Exclude all photos that tag a user who is now deceased;
  • Exclude photos that tag a former relationship partner, if the relationship has been terminated on Facebook

All of these are relatively cold approaches and, more importantly, none of them would have kept Mayer’s daughter from appearing in his Year in Review (we’re assuming a six year old did not yet have her own user account). Plus, all of them could eliminate perfectly happy photos—like a trip to the Lincoln Memorial.

The truth is there’s no clear way for Facebook to make good on its promise. Whether a photo is happy or painful won’t always be evident from the data surrounding it. But then again, Facebook has enormous amounts of users behavior data. It wouldn’t be the first time big data has allowed for surprisingly accurate guesswork.

We’re interested to see what FB comes up with, but we’ll likely have to wait 12 more months to see it. In the meantime, if you have any unpleasant memories you’d rather not stir up, we recommend staying far away from photo-aggregation apps.