Monday, June 30, 2014

This Study Makes Me Angry [In A Futurama Kind of Way]

So it appears Facebook, back in 2012, manipulated some users’ news feeds to show them, for the period of two weeks, more negative news than they would otherwise have seen.

Hands up anyone who noticed. Anyone. Truthfully. And I want proof from your Facebook feed that you were manipulated. And that the manipulation was harmful in any way.

CNN Money tries to explain the manipulation thusly:

Toying with people's emotions is always a potential byproduct of A/B testing, but it's a step too far to intentionally make some users feel negative emotions. That distinction might be subtle, but it's important.

For example, most people would be fine with an Amazon experiment that manipulated search results that drove us to make healthier food purchases. But there would be an uproar if Amazon drove a group of customers to make less healthy choices for a week. 

To that, let me say this: Hahahaha.

Additionally, let me add: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

An uproar?

Has the author of this piece actually looked at any type of, for example, television advertising since the 1950s? Tell me television advertising hasn’t been – and still isn’t – rife with manipulative drivel that makes us want to make “less healthy choices.”

An uproar? Really? We’re so used to advertisers urging us to make unhealthy, unwise choices do you think we’re even going to blink if an Internet company is going to offer us more sad news than usual during an experiment?

Maybe we should be upset. Maybe there should be an uproar. But taken in context, this Facebook manipulation is small, small, small potatoes.

And what, exactly, did this “manipulation” discover? This deep, dark Facebook secret: When Facebook users see more negative news in their news feeds, they tend to post more negative news of their own. And when they see more positive news in their news feeds, they tend to post more positive news.

Feel manipulated?

Here’s what the study paper says, from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive scale [emotional] contagion via social networks. This work also suggests that, in contrast to prevailing assumptions, in-person interaction and non-verbal cues are not strictly necessary for emotional contagion, and that the observation of others’ positive experiences constitutes a positive experience for people.

So what Facebook did is to determine what should already be mostly obvious: We tend to reflect the emotional states of the people we associate with. If we associate with gloomy people, we’re going to trend gloomy. And if we surround ourselves with more chipper fellas, well then, we’re going to be happier.

(PDF of the PNAS paper.)

Of course, who cares about the science of it all when there’s the whaarrrgarbl to be had over the fact that Facebook didn’t let these anonymous users opt in to the experiment, but instead buried text letting them conduct testing and research using content posted on Facebook in those dreaded End User License Agreements that absolutely none of us read. (Add to that the fact that the study uses the scary word “contagion” which freaks out anyone who doesn’t realize they’re just talking about the spread of positive or negative vibes, not some scary virus.)

I know there are legalities and such that must be met for studies to go forth. I don't know all their ins and outs. PNAS does -- and they published the study. If there's ethical concern there, then that's PNAS' kettle of crazy to stir.

Let us opt in to such experimentation, they say. That’s more fair.

It’s also weaker science.

Put a bunch of drivers on the road and they’re going to drive like they always drive. Until they see a cop. Then all of a sudden that normal everyday behavior changes. People drive more cautiously. They put away the cell phones and surreptitiously put on their seat belts. Nobody speeds, everybody behaves. But as soon as the cop pulls off the highway, all that normal behavior returns.

What information is more valuable in determining whether roads are safe, whether speed limits could be increased, or whether seat belt laws are being followed?

So please, spare me the drama. And go back to posting mysterious posts of your own in which you emotionally manipulate your friends into posting that you’re pretty, you’re manly, or random bits of encouragement to your post which merely says: Bad mood.

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