At the end of November, Gillian Brockell, a video editor at the Washington Post, posted a short note to Twitter: “some sad personal news,” she wrote. Her son, who she was in the process of delivering, had died. She was devastated by the stillbirth, but wrote eloquently about her hope for the future while acknowledging that she was currently in a period of grief.
Taking time to process deep personal tragedy is one of the most trying tasks of being human. It is also an action that is inherently at odds with social media. Not in the content we post, necessarily—people like Brockell have bravely demonstrated that public platforms can be a place to share and connect over the bad stuff, too. But in the sense that the platforms themselves exist, ultimately, not to highlight and facilitate our social lives, but to profit off of them.
They don’t really have any concrete incentives to handle grief with care, and it shows. After posting about her stillborn son, Brockell continued to see ads for all manner of baby things. “[L]et me tell you what social media is like when you finally come home from the hospital with the emptiest arms in the world, after you’ve spent days sobbing in bed, and pick up your phone for a couple minutes of distraction before the next wail,” she wrote in a viral tweet Tuesday, also published in the Washington Post, addressed to tech companies. “It’s exactly, crushingly, the same as it was when your baby was still alive.”
Platforms can seamlessly morph to serve up relevant ads that fit with good news—maternity clothes, for example, populate the feed of a pregnant woman seemingly automatically, as they did for Brockell after she posted on Instagram about her #babybump and searched Google for baby-safe crib paint. But avoiding such ads after a miscarriage involves manual work. Rob Goldman, the VP of ads at Facebook, replied to Brockell’s tweets with instructions on how to turn off certain ad topics: “Settings>Ad Preferences>Hide ad topics.” (If you look, there are three options for topics you can mute: parenting, alcohol, and pets, hardly an exhaustive list.) Brockell replied that she had tried to figure this out earlier, but found it too confusing. But further, if she didn’t have to take the time to toggle a setting for the company to know her happy news, why couldn’t it apply that same algorithmic prowess to her tragedy? “That’s why I was suggesting a keyword like “stillborn” triggering an ad break,” she wrote.
Brockell is not the only person to have gone through this wrenching experience. One writer advises having a friend or family member “detox your devices after pregnancy or infant loss.” “Please remember to avoid Facebook on anniversaries of celebratory posts you made around it or delete them or something, because a year from now Facebook will make all the pain come back so hard,” another user replied to Brockell on Twitter. (It’s unclear who these gratingly cheerful year-in-reviews are supposed to serve, anyway—they seem more and more out of touch with what anyone actually lives through.)
The real problem is that there’s no quick capitalistic incentive for Facebook to do the work of sorting ads or pictures for you. As one grieving woman told the Australian website Kidspot, “There’s no money in miscarriages obviously.” Empathetic replies to Brockell’s thread from people who teach mathematics and computer science, and Facebook’s own VP of ads promising to consider ways to help people hide painful ads, suggest the only solution: using social media platforms to loudly pressure tech companies toward humanity.