Hey, have you ever thought that social media just doesn’t receive enough attention nowadays? I know I have! That’s why it was so important for Mashable to declare June 30 Social Media Day back in 2010, so that we can all take a little bit of time off of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat and meet up face to face to celebrate the contributions that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat have made to our lives. But I’m still waiting for Telephone Day.
On a related note, people are using social media to share their feelings about Facebook’s 2012 experiment that manipulated the content of news feeds for 689,903 users to see if it affected their emotional states (it did). Those feelings are not positive: a survey of posts and articles about the experiment turns up words including “unethical,” “creepy,” “manipulated,” “trickery,” and “lab rats,” not to mention some choice descriptors not appropriate for a family industry newsletter.
I will admit that when I first wrote about the report (titled “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks” and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) two weeks ago, I also thought it was a little creepy: I mean, it would be one thing to just observe the effects of positive and negative content in news feeds to see if it had any impact on moods, but actively controlling the content to produce different effects is obviously more intrusive.
That said, however, I didn’t think it was that big a deal because, well, Facebook is constantly changing the parameters for what appears in your newsfeed anyway. One thing made clear by the backlash against the experiment is how little most people still understand Facebook and how it works; reading the complaints you get the sense they think their newsfeed is really just an objective chronicle of all the stuff that’s going on with their friends, rather than something that’s carefully curated by Facebook to “maximize their engagement” with the network.
There’s also the matter of the terms of service, which do allow Facebook to employ user data “for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.” This study would seem to fall under the broad heading of “research,” and no one has suggested that Facebook broke the law.
In short, Facebook was just tinkering with the emotions of hundreds of thousands of people because it could. What’s the big deal?