Facebook is the quintessential dot-com success story: young guy invents software in his dorm room that ends up creating an entire industry and making him a storied billionaire, besides becoming a significant part of the social lives of over a billion people worldwide. Ethically speaking, on the face of it Facebook looks like a no-brainer: it’s all about connecting people, right, so what can go wrong with that? Well, plenty, as shown by stories of flaming mobs and online bullying leading in some cases to suicide. But besides these more spectacular crimes and misdemeanors caused by the general cussedness of humankind, there are things that the software developers do themselves which can go awry. And here’s where it gets personal—very personal.
Back in January, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg called for people to celebrate Feb. 4, the twelfth anniversary of Facebook’s founding, as “Friendship Day.” Now Mr. Zuckerberg is free to call for anybody to celebrate anything, and I have no problem with that. The trouble came, at least in our case, when some anonymous software engineers at Facebook had a bright idea inspired by the call and, as software engineers often do, put it into action without telling the users what they were up to in advance.
It was simply this: “Hey, why don’t we take some pictures that people have posted in the last year or two and send the pictures to them along with a greeting like ‘Happy Friendship Day’? What could be wrong with that?” As it turns out, plenty.
Zuckerberg himself is only 31, and it’s likely that the average age of the technical staff at Facebook is somewhere around that number. If you are a well-paid employee of a giant software successful software company, death does not occupy a large part of your personal horizon. You know it’s out there somewhere, and you read about it online with the other bad news, but it’s not likely to have affected you personally to a great extent, except perhaps for some old relatives whose funerals you may have attended out of a sense of duty.
It turns out that in the last two years, my wife, who is 59, has lost five relatives of various degrees of closeness, ranging from a cousin she hadn’t seen in years to her last remaining aunt, her sister, and her father. And in the last few years she had taken pictures of these people, and posted many of the pictures on Facebook at appropriate times. You can tell where this is going. Imagine how she felt when a couple of weeks ago, she logged on to Facebook one day and saw under the headline, “Happy Friendship Day” a photo of her father in the hospital during his final illness. He died almost exactly a year ago.
For the better part of a day, it was like walking on eggs around here. She rarely gets truly angry, but if Zuckerberg had happened to stop by our house that day, he might have come close to a personal encounter with mortality that he would never forget.
A short time later, she spent several hours systematically taking down every single photo she had ever posted on Facebook that included anyone who has since died. It was a lot of pictures, but she was determined that the machine was never going to catch her by surprise that way again.
Sometimes I amuse myself by imagining how I would explain various modern technologies to someone transported through time to the present from, say, fifty or a hundred years ago. Although Facebook shares some features in common with things that existed in 1966—photo albums, high school annuals, and the postal system, to name three—you could not express what it does simply by referring to those things. And the main feature that would be missing from that description is the way Facebook manipulates the rules, and what happens to your Facebook stuff when they play games with it like Happy Friendship Day.
Unless you happened to be living in the 1960s with a busybody aunt who lacked any sensitivity to your feelings, I can’t imagine someone back then receiving a customized photo album labeled “Happy Friendship Day” that contained pictures of some of the most intimate and painful times in your entire life. But that is exactly what Facebook did to my wife. At least if a nosy aunt did such a tacky thing, she’d be standing right there where you could chew her out for it. As it is, though, the faceless System of Facebook is all she can blame, and her only defense against further manipulations of this kind is to withdraw any possibly pain-evoking images from the System so it can’t fool with them.
Once my wife explained to me what had happened, in the heat of the moment I thought that whatever numskull came up with that idea ought to be tied to a chair and made to watch 200 hours of cat videos. I now think that is excessive. But certainly, some live person or persons originated the idea of recycling pictures for Happy Friendship Day, and as Zuckerberg himself has expressed enthusiasm for artificial-intelligence solutions even to programming problems, it’s virtually certain that some algorithm the programmers wrote made the selection of which photos to include. Despite the best programmers Zuckerberg’s money can buy, that algorithm did not have feelings, and it was therefore insensitive to the psychic pain that such actions could cause.
We are in a strange time in which former organizational divisions of all sorts are falling down, and people who were trained to do one kind of work—software engineering, say—find themselves doing very different kinds of work—for example, manipulating on a massive scale items that have deep and powerful personal meanings for literally a billion people or more. There is an old saying, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” It would have required the discretion and intelligence of many angels to select only those pictures which would have been appropriate to accompany a message such as “Happy Friendship Day” for each one of Facebook’s users. Unfortunately, software is a poor substitute for angelic insight, and the result was in many cases foolish, or worse than foolish.
For reasons of time and disinclination, I have no Facebook page, other than possibly a dormant one my wife started for me in connection with a book publication. If anything happens on Facebook that she thinks I need to know about, she’ll tell me. It has had its good moments for her, and we have reconnected through it with people around the globe whom we had lost touch with. But in the case of Happy Friendship Day, Zuckerberg blew it, at least where my wife is concerned. And it’s going to be a long time before she posts personal pictures on that site again.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.