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‘On This Day’ fix is typical Facebook

The first time I saw a Facebook "On This Day" memory was earlier this year when I got a "1 Year Ago Today" post at the top of my news feed. It literally brought me to tears.

"Shane, here's a photo that you posted exactly 1 year ago" the caption said, accompanied by a beautiful close-up centred on the eyes of my beagle, Marlie. I had posted that photo to Facebook because that was the day my dog died. One year earlier.

That post, on which I had written "Said goodbye to an old friend today," had a lot of "engagement" – well-wishers, in my case – which is the Facebook way of measuring whether content is of high value. I was a victim of this company feature because it measures such engagement to identify old posts it thinks you might like to revisit. I can't overstate how distressing this image was, made worse because I know this automated feature regurgitated it with zero awareness that some humans share experiences on social media that elicit feelings other than joy.

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Facebook has always struggled with nuance and complexity; until this year, the only emotion you could express was "like." Facebook's replacement for the Like button is a menu of emoticon-based expressions, currently being tested in Spain and Ireland. It will offer four levels of like (Thumbs up, Heart, Big Laugh, Embarrassed/pleased smile) and three less-clear symbols; one looks like Surprise, another is clearly Rage. The last option seems to be some sort of neutral face with flat eyebrows and a flat line for a mouth. Notice, still no sadness.

Earlier this week, Facebook said it had made a mistake with On This Day. In a PR note, the company stated: "On This Day was introduced as a way to make seeing and sharing old memories with your friends on Facebook easier. After it launched, we heard feedback that people wanted more control over the memories they see." This is a bland way of saying: "A lot of you were surprised that we reposted pictures of traumatic events. Whoooops!" Starting Oct. 13, Facebook introduced a feature to let users filter out On This Day posts by two methods: By name (I call this the breakup filter, since you can delist certain Facebook users from On This Day) and by time (as in, nothing from certain months and days, please).

This is a lot less traumatic than trying to figure out why Facebook was torturing me with images of my dead dog. I clicked on the menu drop-down next to the On This Day photo in hopes of finding a way to stop it. But at the time, all Facebook had was the standard Facebook reporting structure: "Why don't you want to see this?" with the possible options: "Because it's annoying or not interesting" or "It's spam." There was no option for "Because it makes me sad, you horrible jerks." The only way to stop On This Day was to find the Notification settings deep in Facebook's preferences and turn them off for this feature.

The new filter is still a very Facebook way to handle a problem of its own creation: Dear user, you need to tell us about the horrible stuff in your life so we don't wave it in your face. Terrible breakup? Parent who died? Come to this buried settings menu and tell us about it. It's truly remarkable that a site with about 1.4 billion users still has trouble accommodating or predicting human feelings. At least they also included the "off" button on the same page, though it's still under Notifications.

The On This Day page has a single-line pitch for why you should want this so-called service: "Never Miss a Memory." What Facebook doesn't understand about its users is that there are a lot of memories we might not wish to revisit, and we may not know exactly which ones we should screen for until they lurch back into the top of our timeline.

Facebook's solution essentially means users must scour their timelines in a sort of sadness audit, all the while re-experiencing the very stuff you hope Facebook won't remind you of. The only thing worse would be if they made you pay a small fee to flush an unhappy moment permanently down the memory hole.

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About the Author
Technology reporter

Shane Dingman is The Globe and Mail's technology reporter. He covers BlackBerry, Shopify and rising Canadian tech companies in Waterloo, Ont., Toronto and beyond. More

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