Finding out you’re having a baby is perhaps one of the most exciting things women experience. With the internet at a woman’s fingertips, she can eagerly wait for her baby’s arrival and shop for maternity and baby clothes, plan a sex reveal party, or look up medical and neonatal advice. Online newsletters, blogs, Instagram, and Facebook can track a pregnancy and seemingly anticipate the baby’s impending arrival with her.
But what happens if she miscarries early or her baby is stillborn, and all those web sites still haven’t caught on? When this happens the algorithms that collect data and drive targeted ads, or even just “suggested sites,” can worsen what is already a painful experience. As an internet-soaked society, we must walk a fine line between making technology work for us and accepting its inhuman limits.
This issue came to light in a viral tweet Wednesday. Author Gillian Brockell was due at the end of January. She had been excitedly searching online for everything baby-related, from maternity clothes to just the right color of baby crib paint. When something didn’t seem right, she began to search for terms like “baby not moving,” and ultimately gave birth to a stillborn boy following several days of silence and pain.
Following the death of her tiny baby, technology assumed a thriving pregnancy continued. She recounted these reminders in a sad, desperate plea for a change in algorithms in this open letter to tech companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Experion. The Washington Post recently published a version as well.
— Gillian Brockell (@gbrockell) December 11, 2018
One of the most heartbreaking and salient parts of the letter was this portion:
And when we millions of brokenhearted people helpfully click ‘I don’t want to see this ad,’ and even answer your ‘Why?’ with the cruel-but-true ‘It’s not relevant to me,’ do you know what your algorithm decides, Tech Companies? It decides you’ve given birth, assumes a happy result, and deluges you with ads for the best nursing bras (I have cabbage leaves on my breasts because that is the best medical science has to offer to turn your milk off), DVDs about getting your baby to sleep through the night (I would give anything to have heard him cry at all), and the best strollers to grow with your baby (mine will forever be four pounds, one ounce).
Many people commented on Brockell’s tweet that they too had lost a baby or another loved one, and experienced the strange grief and anger that welled up when an ad, spam email, or flashback photo reminded them of someone they had lost. Users told how it compounded the grief in some way to open an app and see it remind you of your baby due in two weeks even though he actually died two weeks ago. Over and over, users asked why algorithms seem to know when things are good, but fail to know when things have take a turn for the worse.
One colleague commented about a similar experience:
I still get emails from one of the sites I signed up for to track my most recent lost pregnancy. They stopped sending the emails for the particular service I signed up for to track the baby during pregnancy and afterwards — but they still send the marketing emails with words obviously designed for parents of a child of the age of the child I lost. It breaks my heart each time and I am so angry that they can’t figure out how to remove me from this despite my repeated requests.
Still another colleague recalls she experienced a similar phenomenon, but it wasn’t just on social media: “Amazon continued to do the countdown to my due date and tried to sell me baby stuff after I lost [my son]. Infant formula companies continue to send me samples with pictures of smiling babies, even to this day.”
Data fiends have warned for years that collecting of our personal data would come at a cost. It’s not that we don’t know that. Most Americans do know, they just don’t often care until something like this happens and suddenly they feel like they’ve laid the inner workings of their soul bare for the entire world to see — and during the worst time in their lives.
As one colleague put it, “While the percentage of people who really do need those sensitive ads is smaller, this tweet is so, so right that social media should be at least as capable of picking up those cues as they are at picking up the happy ones.”
Ideas for Current Solutions
It currently appears there are three solutions to the problem of this kind of unique grief. The smallest step people can make, although some claim it doesn’t make much of a dent, is to change the settings on the apps bothering you, delete them, or at least clear the cache and unfollow the accounts that trigger pain.
After seeing her Twitter post, the vice president of advertising at Facebook suggested using a setting that allows people to block ads about certain topics, although many users commented this didn’t always work.
I am so sorry for your loss and your painful experience with our products. We have a setting available that can block ads about some topics people may find painful – including parenting. It still needs improvement, but please know that we’re working on it & welcome your feedback.
— Rob Goldman (@robjective) December 12, 2018
This could be more complicated than it sounds, because in the case of a miscarriage or stillborn pregnancy, signs of these things — like bleeding — could mean a range of other problems for women. It’s also highly likely that algorithms form because a woman is searching excitedly about her baby for say, six months, then suddenly out of nowhere, searching about why the baby hasn’t kicked much, before she realizes she is miscarrying and then the searches stop. So often the amount of positive internet searches outweigh the negative, which could explain why there is no reverse algorithm yet.
The second thing to do is what Brockell has here: advocate, demand, or plead for change from the tech industry. Many of us hardly even understand how algorithms work, let alone what to do to reverse the process. But the basic premise is simply that if algorithms are tracking what we search for and “say” online and then targets ads to those things — particularly about happy things like weddings, reunions, and babies — why can’t it do the same about divorces, deaths, or the loss of a child? Surely the reverse algorithm is possible to at least give grieving people a break?
The Third Option Is to Not Expect Too Much from Apps
I hope that as a result of this grief-stricken tweet, tech companies, programmers, and designers are able to determine or implement a way to teach technology how to be sensitive, sparse, or just shut up about our grief and pain. However, until that day, it is finally also worthwhile to analyze our intimate relationship with technology.
People Google everything from what sex is supposed to feel like, to the stages of grief after miscarriage, to the cost of burying a loved one. The internet does not steal our deepest fears and most intimate secrets — we share them. We want the results of our searches. Answers for our pain. Companionship for our loneliness. Empathy through our grief. We want to order a crib on Amazon today and to receive it tomorrow, and we want WebMD results, and we want to know why our pain feels as magnified in grief as our joy felt intensified while announcing good news on the internet.
These are the things we ask the internet to help us with, and then we are disappointed, bereaved, or angry when the internet does not respond with the empathy and concern of a human being. If I can order toilet paper and receive it in 24 hours, or wine from an app and receive it in an hour, or text a friend and get a reply instantaneously, should I not also expect the same from the internet when I am profoundly and deeply saddened and burdened with grief? Shouldn’t it know better?
Perhaps it should and likely someday it will. But since this inanimate object can never fully be intimate in a way that humans need, it may not fully deserve all our intimate wants, needs, questions and desires. It will never react and respond as a human will, no matter how perfect the algorithm.