Home > Facebook, Social Media > Facebook Has Replaced the Annual Christmas Letter

Facebook Has Replaced the Annual Christmas Letter

facebookchristmasI’ve been thinking about this post for a little while as I prepared for Christmas this year. My major life events have been chronicled on social media along with photos to document them. Most of the people I interact with use Facebook so they know what’s going on with me when I see them in real life. And I know what’s going on with them based on what they share.

So it’s not too far of a stretch to say Facebook has made the annual holiday letter obsolete. Then earlier this week Facebook launched a nifty little application called your year in review. You’ve probably seen it on your friend’s timelines. If you haven’t already tried it, year in review takes your most popular posts and creates a short montage. It’s completely customizable, so you can add or delete pictures and text. Personally, I thought it was pretty brilliant and the photos it selected indeed encapsulated my year.

Not everybody thinks the algorithm was good. Eric Meyer called his experience with it algorithmic cruelty.

I know they’re probably pretty proud of the work that went into the “Year in Review” app they designed and developed. Knowing what kind of year I’d had, though, I avoided making one of my own. I kept seeing them pop up in my feed, created by others, almost all of them with the default caption, “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.” Which was, by itself, jarring enough, the idea that any year I was part of could be described as great.

Still, they were easy enough to pass over, and I did. Until today, when I got this in my feed, exhorting me to create one of my own. “Eric, here’s what your year looked like!”

A picture of my daughter, who is dead. Who died this year.

I honestly don’t remember which picture Facebook’s app loaded for me, but I do know the first story it suggested was a picture of my father on his death bed. I didn’t have that great of a year either, but it was still my year. My father died in 2014 and nothing will change that. Not an algorithm change. Not a deleted post or edited picture. Death is a part of life. I know it sounds cliched, but not a day goes by that I don’t think about my Dad. Seeing him again on that bed with my mother next to his side did bring tears to my eyes. But the beauty of that photo far outweighs the sadness it provokes.

Meyer continues by writing,

Algorithms are essentially thoughtless. They model certain decision flows, but once you run them, no more thought occurs. To call a person “thoughtless” is usually considered a slight, or an outright insult; and yet, we unleash so many literally thoughtless processes on our users, on our lives, on ourselves.

Where the human aspect fell short, at least with Facebook, was in not providing a way to opt out. The Year in Review ad keeps coming up in my feed, rotating through different fun-and-fabulous backgrounds, as if celebrating a death, and there is no obvious way to stop it. Yes, there’s the drop-down that lets me hide it, but knowing that is practically insider knowledge.

Further on he suggests some “fixes” so Facebook doesn’t cause this problem again. I submit if Meyer doesn’t want to see pictures of his daughter on Facebook, he shouldn’t post pictures of her on Facebook. I also submit Facebook allows their memory to live on in ways never previously possible. I believe this is a good thing, not something to be fixed.

Going back to my original thought that Facebook has replaced the holiday letter, we have to consider those who aren’t on Facebook or don’t actively use it. While the death of my father was the low point of my year, five months later I welcomed my daughter into my life. I selectively post pictures of her on Facebook, but I have to send emails to my mother who still won’t join. I assume I’m communicating to my other family members through Facebook as well but found out today my brother hasn’t gone on there for months. I suppose I’ll have to c.c. him on my emails to Mom…

He is also evidence the holiday letter isn’t quite dead, but it is most assuredly on its last legs thanks to Facebook.

Does Facebook's year in review replace the holiday letter?

Does Facebook’s year in review replace the holiday letter?

  1. December 25, 2014 at 8:10 pm

    Hi Nigel,

    Thanks for your thoughts and perspective. I think you and I actually agree a fair amount, but I feel that some of your recommendations are a bit limited.

    (And I do want to stress that I called it inadvertent algorithmic cruelty, to signify that I understood it wasn’t the intent.)

    Like you, I don’t want to forget my year, as terrible as parts of it were. The picture of Rebecca does make me smile, if a bit sadly; she’s only six months dead at this point, and the holidays (which she loved) are particularly difficult. It was more the context, with the festive party and upbeat tone, that came over as… well, as almost inappropriate. Which wasn’t the intent of the designers, of course! But that doesn’t change how I reacted, and how that reaction affected my perception of Facebook. If I weren’t a longtime veteran of the web and programming, and reflexively analytical, I might have had a far more negative personal reaction. That’s not the sort of reaction a company typically desires.

    But beyond that, the advice of “if you don’t want to see it, don’t post it to Facebook” strikes me as short-sighted. Tragedy is not something we can always foresee. We knew Rebecca’s death was coming, but think of a parent whose child dies in a car accident, or from SIDS, some other unforeseen occurrence. All of the joyful pictures they shared with friends and family, with no expectation of sorrow, would suddenly become fuel for the Year in Review. Would you expect a parent to delete the pictures of their now-dead child from Facebook, just to avoid having them come up in Year in Review? Would you expect that parent to even anticipate Year in Review doing that? And if they did delete their child’s pictures, how would that be interpreted by the people they connect with on Facebook?

    You propose that humans change their behavior to make things easier for the code. I propose that design (of which the code is a part) be more thoughtfully executed, in order to make things easier for humans. Both are possible, but I believe the latter is a higher goal.


    • December 25, 2014 at 9:04 pm


      Thanks for your reply. Please understand I found your article posted by Robert Scoble and the headline was a lot more click-bait than what you wrote. I definitely understand your perspective and losing a child would certainly be a lot harder than losing a parent who lived a full life. I’m just not sure your proposed solutions would work. For instance, I’m on the road this week and using the mobile app, so I didn’t see any of the ads. The app to create your own review in mobile didn’t have access there so I had to go to a desktop to even create mine. It just wasn’t obtrusive to me like it was for you.

      I think my bigger point was even if I deleted or edited every post I’d made about my Dad, it won’t erase my memory or daily thoughts of him. That’s the part they don’t prepare you for when you lose someone close. My other point is Facebook posts don’t have to be all happy and cheery. Sometimes the greatest lessons come from events that don’t fit that mold. Though I do personally refrain from posting certain content which was my point about the photos.

      Anyway, I do appreciate you expanding your thoughts over here and I am very sorry for your loss.



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