Here we go again. Facebook has gotten into some hot water for its "Year in Review" app that gathers photos and stiches them together into a presumed personal narrative of 2014.
It may have seemed like a good idea, at least on paper. Aggregate pictures and posts as a way to remind Facebook users of some of their milestones this past year. But the effort backfired miserably.
Facebook on Friday apologized to Web designer and writer Eric Meyer, whose 6-year-old daughter died on her birthday in June. When he went online recently, Facebook's invite to "See Your Year" featured a photo of her smiling face.
According to NPR, in a blog post titled "Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty," Meyer wrote:
"I didn't go looking for grief this afternoon, but it found me anyway, and I have designers and programmers to thank for it. In this case, the designers and programmers are somewhere at Facebook."
The Facebook product manager for "Year in Review," Jonathan Gheller, has apologized, telling the Washington Post the app "was awesome for a lot of people, but clearly in this case we brought [Meyer] grief rather than joy.
"We can do better – I'm very grateful he took the time in his grief to write the blog post," Gheller said.
Meyer added that where Facebook falls short is in "not providing a way to opt out."
This is not the first time that Facebook has skirted the privacy line, of course.
Earlier this year the company was accused of manipulating the News Feeds of roughly 689,000 users to study whether online emotions can be contagious.
The social network faced a lot of blowback from users and privacy advocates who felt the study was akin to using people as psychological guinea pigs. Facebook’s defense was that the experiments were designed to gain insights and improve the user experience, but the damage was done.
The takeaway for PR pros is fairly self-evident. When using online tools to get a message out (or increase the stickiness to your site) you have to make sure that the effort does not violate people’s privacy or smack of manipulating or trivializing people’s personal space.
What is more, Facebook’s “Year in Review” is a stark reminder that a few boneheaded moves can destroy (or at least erode) a reputation that took years to construct.
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1