How a Shrewd Algorithm Exploited My Story

Not long after my mom died in April last year, an email came from the local florist reminding me to send flowers. Mother’s Day was around the corner. There were also the pop-ups in my FaceBook feed from the candy companies and other retailers trying to cash in on this greeting card holiday. But there was no mother to send them to. She was gone.

What none of those companies could possibly have comprehended is how painful those reminders were. There was no malicious intent; nonetheless, these emails ripped open the scab of grief that was just a few weeks old. A friend who recently lost her mom was plunged into despair when FB sent her a memory, a picture of her mom. How could these retailers and FB know what pain that had inadvertently caused? After all those messages were generated by an algorithm.

When we turn over our pictures of family dinners, our stories of life and death to FB, Instagram and a whole host of other social media platforms, we forget that those personal moments are no longer our own. They become the property of the companies who created these platforms.

The Big Share

Posting about events in our lives creates a slippery slope. The moments we hold dearest most often involve someone else. Rarely do we think other parties might mind if we share. After my mother died, part of me wanted to post a tribute to her. I didn’t, because I could hear her voice exclaiming, “You put me on FaceBook. Get me off! I don’t want to be there.” (I even recorded her for StoryCorps on NPR. She was excited at first. She told a wonderful story about her grandmother and growing up in New York. But then at the last minute, she asked me not to post it.) In life, my mother was a very private person. In her death, I have honored her wishes, even though though she’s no longer here to protest or be angry with me.

As humans, story telling and sharing is at the center of our communication. Through story we learn, we feel, and we come to understand. But there are ethical questions that we don’t often think about, especially in a world where video goes viral, and millions of people can read, hear and see these stories with just a click of a mouse.

Who Really Owns Our Stories?

The issue of ethical storytelling also looms large in business and philanthropy. Marketers use stories to show how wonderful their products are. Funders show their impact by telling the stories of the recipients of their largess. Storytelling is one of the best ways to sell anything. The problem is there is a power dynamic at play. Even when you ask folks if they would be comfortable sharing their story, it may be hard for organizations or individuals who receive charitable dollars to say no because they feel obligated and grateful for the gifts and help.

All of us, individuals, businesses or nonprofits, need to ask some hard questions.

Who owns the stories we’re in? Are we bit players or major characters? How do we feel about those beyond our immediate circle reading and seeing our tales of joy and tragedy? And what responsibility do we have to honor the memories and wishes of those who are no longer here to grant consent?

These are very human questions that we should all be asking before we turn over our most personal thoughts, feelings and memories to an unfeeling algorithm that can dredge it up when we least expect it and steal a story that only belongs to the people involved.

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