This heartbreaking post explains why Facebook Memories needs to change

"Facebook, you do not know me"

Facebook recently amended its ‘On this day’ feature so that you can block certain people from it – exes, relatives who are no longer with us, and so on – and certain date ranges.

But this open letter by Rachel Jennings poignantly shows why that’s not enough. (We’ve reproduced it rather than embedding because Rachel says she’ll be removing her account soon).

Open letter: please Share

Dear Facebook,

I will be disabling my account later today, but first I would like to explain the reason – because you have told me many times how much you care about me, and that you value my experience. I am also making this post public in the hope that others will read and Share it, because this is something which has already been flagged up as a problem, and could potentially affect any of your service users.

My issue is with the Your Memories function, which I understand from reading and asking around cannot be removed. I have ticked the box asking to see ‘fewer posts like this’, but if anything I am receiving more.

The past few years have for me been quite difficult, including a number of genuinely traumatic events. I am finding it increasingly painful dealing with not only the Memory posts themselves, but also my dread of when you might generate the next one and what it might contain. Because, Facebook, you do not know me. Let’s get this really, really clear. The advertisements on my page have been consistently irrelevant; your ‘suggestions’ that I Friend my ex-partners; my former employers; my students’ siblings; the customer relations assistant I emailed once in 2008 – all this exposes your stab-in-the-dark approach and flawed rationale.

And this is where we come in with these Memories, Facebook. I cannot help but feel you are missing a glaringly obvious point upon which, ironically, your entire business model was created. Facebook relies on the organic nature of human experience: the fact we learn, develop, share, and make new connections every day. This is what keeps your members using the service, and adding to their networks of friends.

However, you seem to ignore the fact that human experience is not a one-way street to Disneyland. Our lives ebb and flow. Last year’s wedding may be today’s bitter divorce. Last week’s pregnancy may be tragic news tomorrow. That photo of the office party? Good times – unless you’ve lost your job.

Facebook, your algorithms are clumsy. Your system makes blind assumptions based on smiles or family members in the frame; a ‘congratulations’; the anniversary of a Life Event. But you do not know us. We may tell you what is in our lunches, but we do not always tell you how we feel. For you to assume that you have the capacity to select ‘appropriate’ Memories from our page content is not only arrogant but dangerous.

Yesterday, the Memory you sent me was of the new kitchen in the house I was preparing for a heart-breaking sale. Today’s Memory was of my beloved little cat, Toddy, sitting in his litter tray as his kidneys began to fail. He died two days later. I know, Facebook, that it will only be a matter of time before you hit me with an image of my dear father, who passed away last year. Perhaps you will show me the photo I posted in tribute the night of his stroke. It is a happy picture of the two of us, laughing on a family holiday. But of course, your algorithms will pick up the smiles and the Likes and shove it in my face without a second thought.

It is only fair to thank you for providing a useful and, for the most part, enjoyable service which has enabled me to keep up with local and long-distance friends, and access a good cross-section of news-and-views as they happen. I also appreciate that you have never charged for your service. However, at this point I feel it is more important for me to protect myself, and for other users to be fully aware of the implications of Your Memories. I hope also that you will reconsider the default nature of Your Memories, and allow your users to opt in or out under Settings, as they can for other features.

Rachel’s brilliantly-written post perfectly encapsulates the problem with Facebook Memories. It’s all done by algorithms, and we are nowhere near the stage where those can understand human emotion, sadness and grief.

The new settings go some way to fixing this problem, but there are still glaring issues. You can only remove someone if that person is on Facebook, for instance. If you posted a picture of you and your now-passed Grandad on Christmas Day 2010, and your Grandad didn’t have a Facebook account, you can’t easily stop that post from appearing. Cats, dogs and other lost pets never had accounts in the first place, so they’ll be included too. If you posted an ultrasound photo of a baby that didn’t make it, again, there’s no account to exclude. Facebook just sees a photo and a bunch of “congratulations” messages. It doesn’t know the baby was never born. It doesn’t know you couldn’t bear to take the post down. It’s just code. It doesn’t know anything. 

There is a workaround: use the date blocking feature to block either particularly traumatic times, or everything from the beginning of your Facebook account. That’s something – but it’s very well-hidden (you have to go into the settings for On This Day, which, let’s be honest, most people will never find) and with something as important as this, it bloody well shouldn’t be.

As Rachel so eloquently explains, the only failsafe solution is to allow people to opt out of Facebook Memories entirely – preferably with a big button in their news feed next to the post. That’s currently not an option at all. When someone asked the question on Facebook’s forum, a support team member responded that you can turn off notifications for On This Day (the irritating “HEY YOU’VE GOT A MEMORY” thing it does) – but the memories still show up in your news feed. And that’s not OK.

Here’s hoping Facebook see sense before long, and allow people to turn this feature off if they want to. We’d prefer it if you had to opt-in in the first place, but from a social network that has videos set to ‘autoplay,’ we won’t hold our breath.

Update: Inspired by this article, we’ve put together a quick guide to opting out of Facebook Memories using the date workaround.

Main image: iStock/burakpekakcan

Holly Brockwell
About Holly Brockwell 291 Articles
Tech addict Holly founded Gadgette in 2015, and won Woman of the Year for it. She's firmly #TeamAndroid, has ambitions to become a robot, and beat all other Hollies to her awesome Twitter handle.