Nathan's column: Manipulation between friends
Facebook has got a lot of people worked up lately, and not just because they’re tired of seeing pictures of their friends’ children, or reading stories about how hard someone’s day has been or being badgered to watch sponsored slideshows of the CUTEST BABY ANIMALS YOU WILL EVER SEE.
No, people are upset with the seemingly omnipresent social network because Facebook revealed last week that in 2004 it turned nearly 700,000 members of its vast user base into the subjects of a psychological experiment without telling them or, you know, asking if they were cool with it.
They might at least have given them a mumbled, “Aresearchsubjectsayswhat?”
The way it worked was, Facebook manipulated users’ news feeds, that list of humblebrags and overshares and — let’s be honest, a whole lot of ads — that stubbornly refuses to display in simple chronological order like any sane person would want. Some users saw a disproportionately high number of positive statuses (“I just had the most delicious pot roast! Here’s a heavily-filtered photo!”). Others got post after post of their friends’ negativity (“Ugh! That pot roast gave me food poisoning. Here’s a photo you’ll wish was more heavily filtered!”)
Researchers found that people who saw positive status updates tended to be more positive with their own posts. Users in the negative group spread that negativity to all of their friends, creating what in some circles was known as The Great Facebook Bumout of 2012.
In other words, it’s totally possible to manipulate the people on social media. Which is useful to know because … well, I don’t know why. But now I kind of want to mess with some of those people over on Pintrest. Pretty soon they’ll all be pinning black t-shirts and posters of The Cure.
There were, it should be said, a few problems with this particular experiment. Some people, perhaps not surprisingly, objected to the fact Facebook was messing with their news feed, which they have long trusted to bring them the ill-considered political opinions of the mostly-forgotten high school friends they connected with in an ill-considered fit of nostalgia when they first signed up.
Facebook has argued that users agreed to be turned into lab rats when they clicked “accept” button at the end of the terms of service policy nobody ever actually reads. Others have pointed out that “dancing on the strings of anonymous Facebook puppeteers” didn’t appear in the terms of service until after the data was collected. And even then, they only referred to it as “research,” which is way less interesting.
Either way, I can never take it too seriously when people who share the minute details of their life with friends, family and that random dude they decided to friend at a party start complaining about invasion of privacy.
Then there’s the methodology of the study itself. Facebook used a computer algorithm to pick out positive and negative posts, but according to at least one report the tool wasn’t very well suited to the task. It looked for positive or negative words, but like so many Facebook users it wasn’t always great with context.
So, for example, “I killed it on my history test today” and “I think I killed a hobo this afternoon” both use the word “killed” and so might both be considered negative updates without even taking into account whether the history exam was a final or just a pop quiz.
According to a Wall Street Journal story, the study grew out of the common complaint that going onto Facebook and seeing your friends’ fabulous vacation photos is kind of a downer. People see their friends’ fabulous lives, the theory goes, and wonder why they’re stuck on the couch every night eating Easy Mac and watching Dancing With the Stars.
This study shows that might not actually be what happens, but lead researcher Adam Kramer has apparently had second thoughts about whether proving that was worth upsetting the people who are the reason he has a job.
“In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
No doubt bringing down all of his friends.