The Algorithms Of Tragedy

This week I found out through Facebook that a former work colleague had died in a car crash. He was an interesting guy, not one that I knew particularly well but the sort of person that I would have liked to have known better. The weird part is that he died last year but, owing to the sorting algorithm on Facebook, I don’t think I saw the news until this week. (I say “I don’t think” because there’s a small part of me wondering whether I did see the news and forgot, but I’m fairly sure I didn’t). I stumbled across the news by accident when I saw a bunch of birthday messages posted on his wall. One caught my eye, leading me to scroll back and read others and piece together what happened.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve missed sad news in this way. I found out a friend had brain surgery a year after he did (he’s doing well I think) while another was involved in a road accident that left her with major difficulties (ongoing), which I only learned months after it happened. Why didn’t Facebook surface this news at the correct time? I think it’s because we often don’t talk about such things directly on social networks for a variety of reasons. We post baby, pet and wedding photos galore, and we vent about our politics liberally and often. But when tragedy strikes we have a different reaction. We go quiet, private and respectful.

In the case of my former colleague, nobody posted the details of his passing on his wall. His last post while alive is a cheerful recount of adventures while on vacation and then his wall moves over to friends expressing their condolences in simple terms like “missing you bud”. The news is inferred rather than stated and therefore just the kind of thing that an algorithm would easily miss. But this says something about algorithmic limitations.

On most social networks there’s been a move toward smart sorting over real time feeds. Silicon Valley, it seems, thinks a computer can curate what information and entertainment will appeal to you most and align your feeds accordingly. And this is perhaps truer than we care to admit. But it also has a downside: our news feeds become personal echo chambers that trend toward the loud and the positive, easily missing the negative and the sad. But that kind of news is just as important. I don’t blame Facebook for this as such. It’s an easy oversight, just an outcome of this algorithm-driven world.

But I do wish I’d known sooner.