Seniors' Love-Hate Relationship With Social Media

ALOHA FROM JENNIE: The members of our Hawaii seniors group are diverse, and so it comes as no great surprise that our perception of social media ranges from those who see it as a 'necessary evil' because viewing Facebook posts is the only way that they'll share in the lives and thoughts of dear children and grandchildren living far away on the mainland, to those who relish the platform and create beautiful journals of their photos, likes and shares for the enjoyment of their colleagues and relatives.

I didn't give it too much thought during the last few weeks when Facebook's "Year In Review" albums from many friends started to appear in my Newsfeed. You may have seen some of these photo templates from your friends as well, containing a post that states "It's been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it". You then open the 'card' by swiping up or clicking the arrow tab on the bottom of the card, and a chronological pictorial of the year's events appear, along with some narrations by your friend, and ending with 'See you next year!'. The result is very similar to the annual 'newsletters' that people have been snailmailing out with their holiday cards all these years.

As the 'tech support' person for this website, I was nevertheless startled when a slightly distressed senior came up to me the other day and asked if there was a phone number that she could use to call Facebook. She explained that the photos Facebook had prepopulated into 'her' card of annual events included tragic photos of a neighbor's house fire, which resulted in a friend's home being burned to the ground and family being displaced with nothing but the clothes on their backs and gratitude that everyone including their pets managed to escape. The senior was horrified to imagine that all of her Facebook friends and family were now thinking that she was a terrible person to commemorate images of the burned out house with festive balloons and confetti in her 'holiday card'.

I hastened to reassure the senior that if she did not click 'share' on the template, then no one else would see the card other than herself. Furthermore, the photos that Facebook prepopulates into each user's template is not selected by a 'live' human being, but rather by computer algorithms, no doubt programmed to show the images that generated the most comments and 'likes' during the year for any given user. The problem is that since Facebook does not supply a 'empathize' button, we are forced to click 'like' even for distressing posts, as a means of showing support and acknowledgement. This was somewhat reassuring to our senior, but she was still irritated that the card kept on reappearing in her Newsfeed every half week or so. 

As I started to put together a Tech Q&A column to walk readers through (1) changing photos contained in their card template and (2) 'hiding' the card so that it would no longer display in their Newsfeed, I came across the Huffington Post blog column linked at the end of this post. Apparently, our senior was not the only one caught unaware by tragic images in her social media outlet. Web designer and writer Eric Meyer lost his young daughter to a brain tumor this past year, and wrote a blog post describing his feelings of unexpectedly seeing his daughter's face on his Facebook card and having to contend with the waves of grief. As a programmer himself, the writer expressed that he understood that Facebook was not being intentionally malicious, and that the templates were being generated by automation. 

His blogpost generated a firestorm of comments from readers sharing their own circumstances and reactions to sad occasions that were being inappropriately commemorated in a cheerful environment, such as the passing of beloved spouses and other family members, pets, and other difficult events. The writer received a swift apology from Facebook's product manager of that particular software app, and graciously responded with a followup post indicating that he didn't blame the Facebook programming team. Our senior is gratified that she is not alone in being jarred by unexpected images being shown in her name, and that Facebook's 'sensitivity' antenna has hopefully been tweaked.

For the most part, the albums posted by our friends have indeed reflected what was no doubt Facebook's original goal:  A commemoration of happy times. We revisited retirements, graduations and other achievements, additions of pets and babies to families, among other milestones and celebratory events. However, we'll also keep in our thoughts those of our friends for whom the past year may not have been as joyous, especially among our senior set.

In our Tech Q&A column linked here, we include a description of how you can either hide your unshared Facebook card, or make changes to the photo images and/or content to better express what you'd like to share. May your new year be filled with tranquility and good health.