Monday, June 30, 2014

I am shocked, shocked that Facebook is manipulating my newsfeed



A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claims to lend support to the popular but controversial notion of “emotional contagion” ...

Working with Facebook, the study's authors grabbed two big groups of the site's users. For one of them, they dialed down the frequency with which positive posts written by their friends appeared on their news feeds; for the other, they did the same thing but with negative posts (as always, users could still see all of their friends' posts by clicking on their profiles). Users in the fewer-happy-posts group subsequently posted in a more negative manner, the researchers write, while users in the fewer-sad-posts group did the opposite, suggesting that good and bad moods were effectively transmitted through the Facebook network. ...

...some folks are freaking out that they were served up manipulated versions of their news feeds, possibly making them (ever so slightly) happier or sadder. ...

...when you actually look at how Facebook's news feed works, the anger is a bit of a strange response, to be honest. Facebook is always manipulating you — every time you log in. Your news feed is not some objective record of what your friends are posting that gives all of them equal "air time"; rather, it is shaped by Facebook’s algorithm in very specific ways to get you to click more so Facebook can make more money...

So the folks who are outraged about Facebook’s complicity in this experiment seem to basically be arguing that it’s okay when Facebook manipulates their emotions to get them to click on stuff more, or for the sake of in-house experiments about how to make content “more engaging” (that is, to find out how to get them to click on stuff more), but not when that manipulation is done in service of a psychological experiment. And it's not like Facebook was serving up users horribly graphic content in an attempt to drive them to the brink of insanity — it just tweaked which of their friends' content (that is, people they had chosen to follow) was shown. ...

Many of the folks most outraged by this seem to be Facebook users (I can tell because they are venting their outrage on Facebook), so if they find this sort of behavior to be unconscionable, they should think twice about using the site.