A great deal has been written about the Facebook experiment – what did they actually do, how did they do it, what was the effect, was it ethical, was it legal, will it be challenged and so forth – but I think we need to step back a little and ask two further questions. Why did they do the experiment, and why did they publish it in this ‘academic’ form.
What Facebook tell us about their motivations for the experiment should be taken with a distinct pinch of salt: we need to look further. What Facebook does, it generally does for one simple reason: to benefit Facebook’s bottom line. They do things to build their business, and to make more money. That may involve getting more subscribers, or making those subscribers stay online for longer, or, most crucially and most directly, by getting more money from its advertisers. Subscribers are interesting, but the advertisers are the ones that pay.
So, first of all, why would Facebook want to research into ‘emotional contagion’? Facebook isn’t a psychology department in a university – they’re a business. There are a few possible reasons – and I suspect the reality is a mixture of them. At the bottom level, they want to check whether emotions can be ‘spread’, and they want to look at the mechanisms through which this spreading happens. There have been conflicting theories – for example, does seeing lots of happy pictures of your friends having exciting holidays make you happier, or make you jealous and unhappy – and Facebook would want to know which of these is true, and when. But then we need to ask ‘why’ they would want to know all this – and there’s only one obvious answer to that: because they want to be able to tap into that ability to spread emotional effects. They don’t just want to know that emotional contagion works out of academic interest – they want to be able to use it to make money.
This is where the next level of creepiness comes in. If, as they seem to think, they can spread emotional effects, how will they use that ability. With Facebook, it’s generally all about money – so in this case, that means that they will want to find ways to use emotional contagion as an advertising tool. The advertising possibilities are multiple. If you can make people associate happiness with your product, there’s a Pavlovian effect just waiting to make them salivate. If you can make people afraid, they’ll presumable be more willing to spend money on things or services to protect themselves – the lobbying efforts of those in the cybersecurity industry to make us afraid of imminent cyberwarfare or cyberterrorism are an example that springs to mind. So if Facebook can prove that emotional contagion works, and prove it in a convincing way, it opens up a new dimension of possible advertising opportunities.
That also gives part of the answer to the ‘why did they do this in this academic form’ question. An academic paper looks much more convincing than an internal, private research report. Academia provides credibility – though as an academic I’m all too aware of how limited, not to say flimsy, that credibility can be. Facebook can wave the academic paper in the faces of the advertisers – and the government agencies – and say ‘look, it’s not just us that are claiming this, it’s been proven, checked and reviewed, and by academics’.
So far, so obvious – isn’t emotional contagion just like ordinary advertising? Isn’t this all just making a mountain out of a molehill? Well, perhaps to an extent, so long as users of Facebook are aware that the whole of Facebook is, as far as Facebook is concerned, about ways to make money out of them. However, there are reasons that subliminal advertising is generally illegal – and this has some of the feeling of subliminal advertising to it, and it does have a ‘whiff of creepy’ about it. We don’t know how we’re being manipulated. We don’t know when we’re being manipulated. We don’t know why we’re seeing what we’re seeing – and we don’t know what we’re not seeing. If people imagine their news feed is just a feed, tailored perhaps a little according to their interests and interactions, a way of finding out what is going on in the world – or rather in their friends’ worlds – then they are being directly and deliberately misled. I for one don’t like this – which is why I’m not on Facebook and suggest to others to leave Facebook – but I do understand that I’m very much in the minority in that.
That brings me to my last ‘why’ question (for now). Why didn’t they anticipate the furore that would come from this paper? Why didn’t they realise that privacy advocates would be up in arms about it? I think there’s a simple answer to that: they did, but they didn’t mind. I have a strong suspicion, which I mentioned in my interview on BBC World News, that they expected all of this, and thought that the price in terms of bad publicity, a little loss of goodwill, a few potential investigations by data protection authorities and others, and perhaps even a couple of lawsuits, was one that was worth paying. Perhaps a few people will spend less time on Facebook, or even leave Facebook. Perhaps Facebook will look a little bad for a little while – but the potential financial benefit from the new stream of advertising revenue, the ability to squeeze more money from a market that looks increasingly saturated and competitive, outweighs that cost.
Based on the past record, they’re quite likely to be right. People will probably complain about this for a while, and then when the hoo-haa dies down, Facebook will still have over a billion users, and new ways to make money from them. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t mind looking like the bad guy (again) for a little while. Why should he? The money will continue to flow – and whether it impacts upon the privacy and autonomy of the people on Facebook doesn’t matter to Facebook one way or another. It has ever been thus….