Bread and Games
In the 1st century, political poet Juvenal warned the populace against giving up their votes and civic responsibility for “panem et circenses.” Bread and games, Juvenal wrote, would become the only concern for the content and lazy citizens of Rome. No-one would be able to tell good from evil as long as the sustenance and entertainment flowed freely.
If Juvenal were alive today, he’d say we are overrun by entertainment. We give up our liberties not for games but for “panem et felicitatem,” bread and happiness. The trendy privacy-vs-security battle won’t bring us to eagerly hand over our votes. It will be our pursuit of happiness.
In the recent issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Facebook published a study of 689,003 users. For one week in January 2012, the social network filtered posts containing “negative” or “positive” words from users’ News Feeds. Half of the study’s subjects saw only neutral-to-positive posts, while the other half saw only neutral-to-negative posts. According to lead researcher Adam Kramer, Facebook was investigating the rumor that friends’ positive posts evoke jealousy and melancholy. With what is arguably the largest sample size in the history of Psychology, Kramer purports the results show otherwise: The lucky “positive post” receivers tended to subsequently share upbeat updates, while the unfortunate “negative post” users reflected the engineered bad mood. The users continued to post in this way for about a week.
“The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product,” wrote Kramer on his own Facebook page. “…we were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook.” Felicitatem, indeed.
A Supply of Happy
The Internet is still reeling. In my 20-year career in research and IT, I’ve never seen anything like it. Professors are debating the result’s significance and picking up their 30-year tiff over the existence of subliminal “priming” (subconsciously evoking behavior). Ethicists are going up against laissez-faire industrialists. Privacy pundits are reiterating their “if the product is free, you’re the product” mantras. Luddites are basking in “I told you so” schadenfreude. But we are missing the big question: What happens when our whole Internet experience is manipulated in this way?
If Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Verizon succeed in squashing Net Neutrality, our interaction with the Internet will be under the control of an unregulated private business. Like Facebook controlling your News Feed, ISPs will control what and who you see when you log on. In the name of “market research,” they’ll run psychological experiments on you for their own political and financial gain. Yet instead of raging against this egregious assault on our freedom, we will welcome it.
The positive psychology movement has surged in the past decade, despite harsh critique from many academics like Barbara Ehrenreich and Julie Norem. Everyone seems to buy in to positive psychology’s promises of everlasting cheer. We’ll do anything to pep ourselves up. We want Facebook to filter out the fuss. If running experiments on us without our knowledge will get us to the sunnier side of life, then so be it. Just like Juvenal’s early Romans, we’ll happily sacrifice freedom for felicity.
Freedom to Choose
Eventually, though, we will struggle to recognize good from evil. Perhaps we’re already too far gone. Verizon’s attempt to privatize a human (and therefore natural) resource like the Internet demonstrates we have lost our way. The Internet is a public utility. Natural gas providers aren’t permitted to infuse mood-altering scents; Sites and ISPs shouldn’t be permitted to design mood- or thought-altering Internet experiences. Facebook’s study altered the moods of 689,003 people in one week’s time. Verizon could easily sway our thoughts before an election. This isn’t science fiction. This is now. A previous Facebook study published PNAS showed significant results in influencing people’s voting behavior.
We must regulate ISPs in the way we regulate power and natural gas providers. In research pursuits, ISPs should be given as much scrutiny than academic or medical labs. Our data is our liberty. ISPs should be required to protect that data, therefore ensuring the basic human rights of all customers.
Write to the FCC using the link at Freepress’s Save The Internet page. The structures for Internet freedom are already in place, we just have to protect them. The Facebook study gives us a concrete example of unrestrained, massive, subconscious human manipulation. We must work as a united citizenship to ensure the basic freedoms of life, liberty, and the (conscious) pursuit of happiness.
UPDATE: Dating powerhouse OKCupid.com has posted a blog article about their own experiments. The tone of the article suggests OKCupid sees their testing in the same light. I find it debatable. They didn’t subconsciously manipulate moods.
Photo credit: SBA73 on Flickr