In one of my college Psychology classes, the professor guided us through a mindfulness meditation in attempt to demonstrate a biofeedback process. I closed my eyes as instructed and followed her lead. By the end of the exercise, my pulse felt slower and my shoulders were more relaxed.
When I opened my eyes, I found another student turned completely around in his seat staring at me. Instead of following the professor’s instructions, he’d studied me for the duration of the lesson without my knowledge or permission. He then explained to the class every external detail he observed of my experience.
Panicked feelings of violation and threat surged up my spine. The professor did nothing to stop this man, nor did she acknowledge my fear. Later, she refused to listen to my outrage. “He probably just likes you,” she said.
Facebook apparently “just likes” us too. It conducted a mood-influence study on almost 700,000 users and published the results in a well-respected scientific journal. Facebook refused to acknowledge the outrage expressed by users worldwide. One week after the results of its “Emotional Contagion” study were made public, Facebook’s 2nd-in-command and Lean-In author Sheryl Sandberg called the “poorly communicated” study “a small experiment.” She didn’t apologize for the study itself. “This was part of ongoing research companies do to test different products,” Sandberg said, implying that such testing is routine and should be expected. The lead researcher Adam Kramer said they wanted to make sure people aren’t being turned off by too many happy posts by friends.
Most people are shocked to learn that certain experiments have been successful in influencing human behavior. “Priming” has been a 30-year debate in the field of Psychology. Some say priming results are impossible to recreate (a requirement for a phenomenon to be considered real), others say results replicate just fine. Results of priming, if they exist, exist in very short bursts. The elicited behavior “extinguishes” (fades away) quite quickly. The Facebook experimenters say their week-long priming effects lasted about as long, after they had stopped their stimuli (in this case, filtering of happy or sad posts).
Facebook considered this as market research, but to anyone with a psychology degree or even cursory knowledge of the field, this experiment was an egregious disregard of international guidelines for human trials. It was invasive and self-serving. We’re all still trying to get over the creepy, violated feeling that comes with this kind of personal manipulation. Just like that jerk in my class, Facebook tore into our sense of personal space. In fact, they manipulated our moods. Just like in the cyberpunk fiction of the 80s – a company got into our heads – purposefully and effectively.
There are 2 types of behavior experiments: Observational and Experimental. In observational studies, a researcher simply looks at existing data. Think crime statistics or SAT scores. In Experimental studies, the researcher changes one or many factors in a participant’s environment in order to generate data. Think drug testing or taste tests. Strict governmental and professional “informed consent” regulations on experimental research dictate participants must be aware they will be studied and participants must be told (at some point before or after) of the study’s purpose. By providing this information and agreeing to the terms, the researcher and the participant share the responsibility for the participant’s well-being. Facebook claims their Terms of Service allows for this type of experimenting, but it is one of those legalese gray areas that no-one is buying.
Pundits have been warning us for decades about giving up our privacy online in exchange for convenience or connection. Indeed, our behavior has shown that we can endure breaches of privacy that would have been considered outrageous just 20 years ago, all in exchange for trivial things like a few extra minutes when boarding a plane or help in locating that long-lost friend from grade school. We’re going to let this Facebook mess slide because of their PR spin – that they want to make sure using Facebook is a joyful and life-enhancing experience. “Facebook makes you happy” could sound, to the masses, as something to strive for. But who decides what “happy” is? And whose “happy” is most important. In the case of Facebook, Facebook’s happiness is most important. If they want to influence your vote so they can continue for their own gain, they will. Now they know they can (Indeed, Facebook previously published a study that demonstrated just that -affecting users’ voting behaviors).
We can’t swallow Facebook’s PR feed. The real reason behind these experiments isn’t to enhance your life. It is to enhance Facebook’s life. They will say it is mutually beneficial. They will continue to fight for the right to do their “market research.” But when humans are the market, then the rules immediately change. Facebook is aware of this, they are just trying to spin it in their favor. They were creepy and sneaky and we should never forget it. We need to expand human trial regulations to social networking sites. Facebook can do their research following the tried-and-true human trial guidelines that the medical and academic communities set up and refined over the last 100 years.
I never went back to that college class with the creepy guy. I dropped it and found another class. Facebook won’t be the only game in town forever. And bad memories never seem to fade.
Photo credit: Casey Fleser on Flickr