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Zucked: A Recent History of Facebook’s Blunders

Facebook is celebrating its 11th birthday this week – news that’s likely to make you feel pretty old. As a 28-year-old who signed up for Facebook during the summer before college, it’s h...
Zucked: A Recent History of Facebook’s Blunders
Written by Josh Wolford
  • Facebook is celebrating its 11th birthday this week – news that’s likely to make you feel pretty old. As a 28-year-old who signed up for Facebook during the summer before college, it’s hard to imagine a world without it.

    We all love Facebook. We all hate Facebook. We all love to hate and hate to love Facebook. Plenty of walks down memory lane could champion the good Facebook’s done in the world – and there’s a lot of it – but I’d like to take a different path.

    The following is a thorough but in no way exhaustive look at the times Facebook really Zucked up – most of which led to some truly pissed off users.

    What do you think is the biggest blunder Facebook has made in the past few years? Let us know in the comments.

    That time Mark Zuckerberg championed free speech but then lol nevermind

    Facebook is not, has never been, and will never be a haven for free speech. It doesn’t have to be. It’s a company that survives on advertising revenue. You can’t expect a publicly-traded company that lives and dies (mostly lives as of late) by the ad dollar to take a stand for offensive content. You shouldn’t expect this.

    But that’s just what Mark Zuckerberg did in early January following the terrorist attacks on French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

    “As I reflect on yesterday’s attack and my own experience with extremism, this is what we all need to reject — a group of extremists trying to silence the voices and opinions of everyone else around the world. I won’t let that happen on Facebook. I’m committed to building a service where you can speak freely without fear of violence,” he wrote in an impassioned note to his 31 million followers.

    At the time, I commented that ultimately, there’s always going to be some whiff of hypocrisy whenever Mark Zuckerberg soapboxes on the promise of free expression. Despite his intentions, which I’m sure are well and good, Facebook just isn’t built to be a free speech haven.

    Cue the kowtowing.

    Fast forward a few weeks and Facebook found itself at the wrong end of a Turkish court order. A Turkish court had ordered Facebook to block various pages that it said were insulting to the Prophet Mohammad.

    The ultimatum? Block the pages or we ban Facebook outright.

    In the end, Facebook chose to block the offending pages inside Turkey, a move that drew criticism from many free speech activists. The threats worked. Turkey and its 40 million Facebook users retained full, somewhat censored access to Facebook.

    The time(s) Facebook tried to copy Snapchat

    Snapchat has been one of the fastest-growing apps of the past few years, and it was the first to make the idea of ephemeral messaging trendy. Before 2011, most people didn’t think they wanted their messages to disappear after the intended recipient read them – but by 2012 Snapchat was all the rage.

    And so Facebook tried to make their own Snapchat.

    In an odd rebranding decision, Facebook decided to call their new standalone app “Poke”, as in the same name as the widely-derided feature of pre-news feed Facebook (it still exists, by the way) that allowed users to “poke” each other. And then wait to be poked back. And then poke again. And then wait to be poked back…

    Facebook launched the Poke app in late 2012. It didn’t really make a splash, to say the least.

    In May of 2014, Facebook killed Poke for good, although its death had already happened many months before. RIP Poke.

    Not content to try and fail to capture Snapchat magic just once, Facebook launched the standalone app Slingshot in the summer of 2014. Slingshot was kind of like Snapchat, but with the interesting caveat of not being able to see what another person sent you until you sent them something back.

    It didn’t go well either. Facebook has tried to keep it on life support by taking it in an entirely different direction, but like fetch, it’s just not going to happen.

    That time Facebook made you download an entirely separate Messenger app because tapping one extra tab was too hard

    2014 was the year of the unbundling, with many popular apps splitting up core services once offered inside one, flagship app, and spreading them across multiple standalone apps. Facebook was no different.

    Apart from Facebook’s desperate attempts to capture the Snapchat magic, the company decided to strip its app of one of the most popular features of said app, and force people to download a brand new app to regain its services.

    So, why did Facebook force another app on you? Here’s what Mark Zuckerberg had to say about it:

    We wanted to do this because we believe that this is a better experience. Messaging is becoming increasingly important. On mobile, each app can only focus on doing one thing well, we think.

    The primary purpose of the Facebook app is News Feed. Messaging was this behavior people were doing more and more. 10 billion messages are sent per day, but in order to get to it you had to wait for the app to load and go to a separate tab. We saw that the top messaging apps people were using were their own app. These apps that are fast and just focused on messaging. You’re probably messaging people 15 times per day. Having to go into an app and take a bunch of steps to get to messaging is a lot of friction.

    Messenger is its own app now because tapping your Facebook app and then tapping one more tab to access chat was very, very hard, apparently.

    There was some backlash, if you can believe that.

    Don’t think that this trend is going to end. You can expect more standalone apps from Facebook in the future.

    That time Facebook showed people their dead children in cheery, upbeat “Year in Review”

    The road to bad publicity hell is paved with good intentions. And shitty algorithms.

    This past Christmas, Facebook was forced to issue an apology after its 2014 wrap-up app, called Year in Review, caused some unintended pain for some users who were forced to relive painful events in their lives.

    One such user was Eric Meyer, whose experience became national news after he penned a blog post about Facebook’s Year in Review app juxtaposing images of partying and having a good time with photos of his dead daughter.

    “Yes, my year looked like that. True enough. My year looked like the now-absent face of my little girl. It was still unkind to remind me so forcefully,” he wrote.

    “And I know, of course, that this is not a deliberate assault. This inadvertent algorithmic cruelty is the result of code that works in the overwhelming majority of cases, reminding people of the awesomeness of their years, showing them selfies at a party or whale spouts from sailing boats or the marina outside their vacation house. But for those of us who lived through the death of loved ones, or spent extended time in the hospital, or were hit by divorce or losing a job or any one of a hundred crises, we might not want another look at this past year.”

    Facebook promised to work on it – you know, for next year’s sake.

    That time Facebook had the slowest goddamn product rollout in history

    You know when you were a kid and your dad promised you something but then he forgot about it and you never got it and then you saw that a couple of your friends had it and you were like wtf dad and so he finally gave it to you but when you opened it you saw that it wasn’t the new go-kart he promised but was just a bunch of metal parts and an oily wrench so it was pretty much useless so you sulked a bit and waited around and then finally he gave you the whole go-kart but by then you were a teenager and didn’t want it anymore?

    No? Ok.

    Well, that happened to you. Not exactly that, but Facebook basically did that with the rollout of Graph Search.

    Facebook unveiled Graph Search after months of speculation in January of 2013, and immediately put everyone on a waiting list. The company warned the rollout would be slow, and man were they not lying. It wasn’t until August of 2013 that everyone in the US woke up with Graph Search.

    But it wasn’t the full Graph Search.

    At the time, users could only search for things people “liked,” (My friends who like Arcade Fire), photos (Photos of me and Chris from 2013) and other basic profile information including location, work info, and more. From day one, Facebook promised that Graph Search would include post search – the ability to search for things like “John Smith’s status about beer” – but when Graph Search proper hit all in the US, post search was nowhere to be found.

    So we waited. And waited. And waited.

    And then it was spotted in the wild, but only on mobile. Then Facebook said it was testing the feature, which it promised nearly a year prior.

    It wasn’t until December of 2014, nearly two years after Facebook unveiled Graph Search, that Facebook added it iOS. It also added post search to desktop.

    Android still doesn’t have Graph Search.

    That time Facebook ran a weird emotion experiment on its users without telling them about it

    This one really creeped everyone out – mostly due to the fact that it was just plain creepy as hell, but also because it made us all realize that Facebook can have a legitimate effect on our mental state, which is troubling. Or at least that was the hypothesis.

    Here’s what happened, as written in an official scientific paper with the creepy ass title of “Experimental Evidence Of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks”.

    Emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. Emotional contagion is well established in laboratory experiments, with people transferring positive and negative emotions to others. Data from a large real-world social network, collected over a 20-y period suggests that longer-lasting moods (e.g., depression, happiness) can be transferred through networks…although the results are controversial. In an experiment with people who use Facebook, we test whether emotional contagion occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals by reducing the amount of emotional content in the News Feed. When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks. This work also suggests that, in contrast to prevailing assumptions, in-person interaction and nonverbal cues are not strictly necessary for emotional contagion, and that the observation of others’ positive experiences constitutes a positive experience for people.

    TL;DR: Facebook wanted to see if it could make you sad by showing you sad stuff and if it could make you happy by showing you happy stuff.

    Consumer watchdog groups called it “unethical”, regulators opened probes, and users expressed their outrage at the experiment … on Facebook. And everyone kept using Facebook because Facebook’s gonna Facebook and that’s life.

    It was just poor communication anyway.

    That time Facebook banned cartoon boobs

    In September of 2012, Facebook banned this New Yorker cartoon:

    A few months later, Facebook removed this photo for violating its community standards on nudity:

    You don’t need to rub your eyes again. That’s an elbow.

    Both of these were reinstated after viral outrage and both came with an apology from Facebook. But these two highly-publicized examples were endemic of a big problem: Facebook had a major breast phobia.

    Breastfeeding became a huge issue for the site, which faced criticism from mothers who had their breastfeeding photos removed and their accounts banned – even though Facebook’s policies stated that nudity in the context of breastfeeding was ok.

    What was going on – besides simply mistakes by Facebook’s mostly-outsourced content moderation units – was that the company had a nit-picky rule about breastfeeding photos. Basically, breastfeeding photos were allowed as long as the exposed nipple was actually feeding the child and you know, not sitting out there willy nilly not doing a damn thing. Lazy nipple.

    If this sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. That was Facebook’s stance for years, until June of 2014 when it finally freed the nipple – the un-babied nipple that is.

    Still, Facebook has and will continue to remove content in error.

    In the end, you have to cut Facebook some slack. Just think about how difficult the task of moderating all of that content must be. Of course, no amount of discerning eyes could adequately cycle through the billions and billions of links, photos, and videos shared each and every day. Facebook continues to rely heavily on user reporting, and its crew of outsourced content moderators at multiple global offices have an impossible job – mainly determining what content violates Facebook restrictions, however convoluted they may be.

    That time Facebook maybe, possibly, tried to listen to your conversations

    Facebook already knows everything there is to know about you so I don’t quite understand the outrage here, but in June of 2014 people were PISSED about a proposed feature that would let Facebook “passively” listen to users’ background activity.

    According to Facebook, the feature would allow it to easily identify songs, movies, and TV shows simply by sound – kind of like a creepier Shazam – so that it would be easier for people to post statuses about exactly what they’re doing (I’m listening to The Police – “Every Breath You Take”, for instance).

    To put it lightly, there were some people out there who weren’t buying it.

    “Facebook says the feature will be used for harmless things, like identifying the song or TV show playing in the background, but it actually has the ability to listen to everything — including your private conservations — and store it indefinitely. Not only is this move just downright creepy, it’s also a massive threat to our privacy. This isn’t the first time Facebook has been criticized for breaching our right to privacy, and it’s hoping this feature will fly under the radar. No such luck for Facebook,” read a petition that garnered over 600,000 signatures.

    Facebook attempted to clear up any confusion about the new app feature, saying,

    “The microphone doesn’t turn itself on, it will ask for permission. It’s not always listening … so it’s very limited in what it is sampling.”

    “I wouldn’t want this in my pocket either if it was recording everything going on around me,” said Facebook Security Infrastructure head Gregg Stefancik.

    Every step you take, I’ll be watching you..

    That time Facebook promised you a cool new News Feed but then lol nevermind

    In March of 2013, Facebook announced a huge update to News Feed. Huge. Zuckerberg tossed around words like “personalized newspaper” and “visually rich and engaging”. He said that it would be 50% photos and other visual content to “reflect the evolving face” of Facebook.

    This wasn’t just your standard blog post announcement either. Facebook held a big new News Feed event.

    Like with Graph Search, Facebook warned that this would receive a very slow rollout. Once again, they weren’t lying.

    By December of 2013, reports indicated that in “the small rollout to a single-digit percentage of users, engagement with the new design has stalled.”

    Fast forward to today, and very few people have ever seen a News Feed that looks like the one Facebook made such a huge deal about in 2013. What Facebook did do, however, is incorporate some elements of that redesign into what you see today. It’s not the drastic change Facebook promised, but your current News Feed is reflective of some of the elements of the fabled New News Feed.

    That time Facebook yanked a bunch of photos of women post-mastectomy

    Facebook eventually apologized and restored them. See content removal mistakes, above.

    That time Facebook was pretty sure everyone wanted Facebook all over their phones

    You may not even remember Facebook Home or the HTC First (aka The Facebook Phone). That’s ok. There’s really no reason you should.

    In the spring of 2013, Facebook held a big event to launch a new experience – one that would put Facebook front and center on your mobile devices. Why just have a Facebook app when your entire smartphone could be a Facebook app. That was the thought behind Facebook Home.

    Facebook Home turned your Android device into a Facebook machine. Facebook became your home screen. Facebook replaced your lock screen. The UI layer was a lightweight way to make your whole mobile experience revolve around checking your News Feed and chatting with Facebook friends.

    And if you didn’t already have an Android phone, why not buy a phone that comes pre-loaded with Facebook Home?

    The only problem was that nobody wanted this. That became quickly apparent, as the HTC First, the aforementioned “Facebook Phone”, was quickly phased out. And the OS-lite “app family” soon found itself riddled with 1-star app reviews.

    “What the hell is Facebook home doing?” asked one reviewer.

    “Cool way to use Facebook, but with no support for my other widgets, it limits my phone. If I wanted a single company to take over my homescreen appearance, I could use an iPhone,” said another review. Nice Apple zing, too.

    A little over a year after the big debut of Facebook Home, Facebook disbanded the crew of engineers who had been working on it. You can still download Facebook Home at the Google Play store and its average rating has improved since the initial onslaught of negativity – but Facebook’s grand experiment to make your phone a Facebook machine is on life support, if anything.

    That time Facebook waged a war on Kirk Cameron and tried to silence him

    Just kidding. Facebook accidentally blocked a link to one of his movies for five minutes because so many people reported it as spammy.

    That time Facebook killed everyone’s organic reach

    Which is why you probably won’t see this article. What a bummer.

    What’s your best, or worst, memory of Facebook over the last 11 years? Let us know in the comments

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