The Facebook Experiment: the ‘why’ questions…

Facebook question markA 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….


80 thoughts on “The Facebook Experiment: the ‘why’ questions…

  1. First of all, the experiment was a big, fat waste of Facebook’s time and reputation because the psychological proof they were after has already been replicated and published a dozen times over. Every neuroscientist and -psychologist worth his or her salt would respond to their conclusions with a whopping,”Well, duh.” There are entire books on the subject, it even has a name: priming. Hell, your local grocery store employs far more powerful selling techniques than that and they’ve been doing it successfully (and quietly) for decades. So, Facebook got caught with its fly down for nothing.

    Second of all, every time Facebook pulls another boner like this, I just feel better and better about never setting up an account.

    1. Not sure it’s for nothing, if they can persuade advertisers to pay more for their ads, which is the underlying intention. Facebook, too, are in a different position to the grocery store, particularly in terms of how much information they have on you, and how they can use that to persuade…

      1. Oh, of course ad revenue is the underlying intention. It’s just ironic that Facebook used the costliest method to persuade advertisers considering their objective is profit. It was very expensive of them to reveal the man behind the curtain like that.

        But in a way, it culls the herd nicely for them: the savvy, suspicious users, the ones hardest to fool, will leave, and the distracted, unaware ones will stay. The average Facebook user will continue to shift into exactly the type Facebook likes to feed off of the most.

        The only difference between a grocery store’s marketing and Facebook’s is a grocery store has more of the five senses at its disposal to manipulate. Physical immediacy is powerful, especially as regards food. But in the end, they both overwhelmingly target visual triggers and the neuropsychological techniques they employ are the same. Human instincts are predictable in the most delightfully profitable way.

        It’s fascinating at first–then nauseating–to discover just how easily manipulated people are and how often it happens. We are literally swimming in a sea of advertising and much of it happens at an unconscious level. Just like an optical illusion works on us every time no matter how hard we try to unsee it, there are effortless ways to convince the mind of things that are not true.

        The fact that the public largely disbelieves this and are ignorant to its depth and reach works nicely for companies like Safeway and Facebook. Megacorporations like Coca-cola and Johnson and Johnson have paved the way for them by funding millions upon millions of dollars of research into finding just how to get Susie in Chicago to believe her life will be better with more Diet Coke and color safe bleach on her pantry shelf. The subtle intricacies of just how they do this is as disgusting as it is elegant…and it makes you feel like a used condom once you begin to comprehend it.

        Actually, I’m a little disappointed in Facebook. With all its money, influence and purported geniuses on the payroll, you’d think they’d have forged new territory into cutting edge brainwashing by now instead of playing the same old games. Ah, well, give it time.

  2. “Academia provides credibility”, indeed. Academia got used in this instance. If something was to come of this as I suspect it might in one form or another, it’s going to be because of the term of service agreement. There have been some reports that the “research” part was added months after the experiment actually took place. If thats the case, well some may take Facebook to task on this one.

    I agree with you, that it’s all about Facebook’s bottom line, which is why I think people really get upset about it. Money is not only a motivator but also an agitator.

    In my humble opinion I think Facebook was in the wrong. Academia, if (some) having reservations should never have moved forward with it. Also this is and will always be a reminder to others to think twice. Ethics are real and we need to have some ethical standards or we will devolve into something that we’d wished didn’t exist. Then again it makes me think, good thing this situation (relatively benign) happened because it makes us aware of how fragile this system is that we live under. By system I mean the internet and the various forms it takes (websites/services), and what power we give it over lives.

    1. The problem academics often have is that funding from central sources or governments is being squeezed, and they’re being encouraged to seek corporate sponsorship or partnerships… this sort of thing will happen again…

  3. What is troubling to me is that two major research universities consulted on research that would not meet their own criteria for human subjects research. I think the researchers should be subject to disciplinary action from their respective institutions. Facebook will continue to act unethically and hide behind EULA’s but universities should not touch them, no one should touch them. What is sad is that I don’t know a single user of FB who isn’t fed up with all the finagling they do with newsfeeds.

  4. Media companies have been attempting to manipulate consumers’ emotions for years. Read The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard. What I find most disturbing is that people will scream and holler about the government invading their privacy, yet they’ll go on Facebook and divulge all sorts of personal information about themselves without prompting. Privacy is virtually non-existent in this day and time, unless we work to protect our own privacy by not putting every detail of our lives out there for all to see.

  5. Facebook is kinda like the government, they do something everyone’s unhappy about and people b*tch and whine for awhile so they release a new thing like being able to throw an electronic cow at someone and people get all excited about it and forget what they were mad about in the first place.

  6. I totally agree that Facebook is hardly concerned about image. When people realized their information was being given to advertisers years ago, everyone made a huge deal about it. People posted their rants in the topic (via Facebook I might add) and then it died down. They didn’t see much of a drop in users, so why shy away from controversy at all?

  7. You have said it pretty 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.”

  8. Correct on all counts. I particularly like the statements about Facebook only doing what is good for Facebook’s bottom line. Unfortunately, their effective monopoly on social networking makes it difficult for people to meaningfully object and stay in (loose) touch with large groups. What is needed is a universal specification for the social network profile which would enable different companies to create different networks – sadly, this would not be good for Facebook’s bottom line.

  9. Thank you for this interesting write up and for the informative interview on the BBC.
    Parenthetically perhaps you can clear something up for me which is when I first heard this story repeated on the BBC Radio 4 I thought there was also an interview with a female web psychologist? I wasn’t paying full attention, do you know who that might be?
    Well, what is a web psychologist? This actually provides an entree for my comments as I am interested in the following:-
    The same sorts of methods used by the big social media companies could be very helpful, well directed and carefully used, in psychological therapies.
    Those companies are not in a position to offer these services on their own platforms, for obvious reasons, although they very well may as a paid service, the combination of options being complex.
    Clearly these are issues we need to give considerable thought to.
    However, there is a further thought that belongs here:issues of data ownership. WebID and WebID-TLS offers a solution in this area. I’m wondering what you think?

  10. This is such an interesting post – you’re completely right, it must be all about advertising and this experiment does show the power advertising in the right way can have. It is a bit creepy, but is it any different to the use of billboards, print or tv advertising? It’s just in a slightly different medium.. And like you say – the monetary gain far outweighs the cost or coming clean – they’ve done it completely on their own terms and we are just pans in their big game. It’s fascinating really.. not sure it is any different to the propaganda spewed out by large supermarket chains and other similar companies – we just swallow it all and hope it is the truth because what power to we have in the face of enormous, monied and faceless corporations? I think it is all just a brilliant idea and don’t see why anyone wouldn’t do it if they had the opportunity! I wrote a post on the topic and would love your thoughts on it 🙂

  11. It opens up a new dimension of possible advertising opportunities. The whole sense of the experiment results as research analysis and at the end of it all its the subscriber’s sole responsibility to watch over him/herself online.

  12. It amazes me when reading the intelligent comments here that Facebook can leverage anything. Their fully exposed. Is there a mass of people who don’t care how they’re used and abused? Do they not know that they’re a product?

  13. As with most thinks in life, facebook users have a choice – walk away or stay – I walked away years ago and never looked back – thought provoking writing – thanks!… Cheers J

    1. It’s a good question because, of course, people are entitled to lie (difficult as that maybe to accept). Very briefly, just as logically we only say true things in a wider context that what we say could be false, in other words there must be the possibility of getting things wrong – what would a world be where everything everyone said was true, not one with human fallibility. So people are only sincere in so far as they are not being insincere.
      And fb, how does that machine react? Well I should think it ignores “false positives” because there is enough reliable data to discard what it does not need.
      And the individual themselves, well they get some odd advertising suggestions?
      And, of course, it does nothing about a persons relative status viz a viz their friends, there is no good mechanism for that.
      Have you ever tried to tell someone you disagree with what they have said on fb? It is a completely inappropriate medium for discussion as we know the term.

  14. Hard to imagine it was only a few years ago there was no such thing as facebook. How it has established itself to such a point of influence these days.

  15. Meanwhile, Paul, is this generating more interest than your other posts, without checking my guess is it is.
    But, even with the limited numbers here, it is nearing the overwhelming.
    So there is something wrong somewhere in how social media, including blogs, are designed.
    I don’t even know if the progenitor of the article has now abandoned his “children” commentators?
    Perhaps he, too, is overwhelmed?
    A couple of other more general points.
    My picture for the internet is that we are as moths attracted to the light of being broadcast to an audience, that is taking the pot shot risk of being published, as here, and who may read.
    But, we really have it the wrong way round.
    fb comes half way in this context. We need to be thinking of directed communications to known others. fb is ambiguous in this as it generally encourages spurious friend making.
    There is also the distinction between those (as I have) who have sought interesting contacts on the internet and those (as my daughters) who use fb to circularise their friendship group, that is people they know in person and regularly see.

      1. Ha! 😉
        Google:technical problems, spanner in legal works, bad law?
        There is always ambiguity moving between inside, relationship to outside and assessment of outside. It seems, as I am now learning, between individual, group, institution, and their respective logics.
        (Ideas of which I am only now realising have actual applicability … )

  16. As someone who advertises on Facebook as some of you might, Facebook has changed dramatically in advertising. The natural reach of page posts have been stifled.

  17. Reblogged this on TC's Blog and commented:
    For profit reasons or for sociology?….. these are the questions I think the experiment is yet to answer….besides aren’t businesses going to gain since the experiment Will provide alternate ways of marketing ?

  18. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard about this… Until I realized I hadn’t entered a news site for the past few days, other than through Facebook. A bit more research and it was the last little push I needed to close my account. But I agree – – it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of staying users that Facebook continues to have a hold over, which seems to get stronger and stronger every year.

  19. I left halfway.. I didn’t drop my account in case I can’t reach someone, but I don’t go back to it. It is really hard, and I’m going through withdrawals of a sort because all my friends and family are still using it practically, and it isn’t easy to get hold of them through email or other means like it used to be.

    I think the key here is previous, more ethical studies, have already discovered that the more unhappy or unsatisfied you make a person, increases both the likeliehood they will purchase product and the quantity/size they are likely to buy. In short they use their money to unconsciously search for happiness.

    Happy, well-adjusted, satisfied people don’t tend to think they need things to be happy.

    I suffer from depression and other mental illness, when I heard about the study I knew I had to leave. I refuse to be manipulated on this level just to stay in contact with the people I love.

    The shocking thing, I sent emails to 20 people I knew would believe me if I told them about the study and attached the corresponding link to the news story. One of them deleted their account, the rest are continuing as usual.

  20. Reblogged this on Always we begin again… and commented:
    I think anyone that struggles with recovery of any sort, emotions, emotional attachment to objects, happiness, satisfaction, or contentment needs to read this article. What the article doesn’t say is previous, ethically obtained research, has determined that the more unhappy people are the more likely they are to spend and the more they will be willing to spend in quantity and scope. This gives an unmentioned incentive to Facebook to make you feel worse rather than better, if they are interested in this sort of thing, which, it appears, they are.

  21. Reblogged this on XXX Model Center and commented:
    Facebook Flying Down for months with no stop , this experiment will end with the face empire for sure if the “head- square” company brains dont change politics in few time. Wanna bet ?. Why ? easy response , triing make the most money of possible with fault experiments like a tirane nation, facebook today’s not the right way for make business , the base fails on all the aspects facebook politics sucks like his etics, Gratefully others companies are changing his mind on other way , working much better and flying high , almost for make business: today facebook is a dissaster.

  22. It’s a kind of funny to watch how creeped out people are after reading about this experiment. Why funny? Because it essentially was not that different from what FB, Google and other internet companies do all the time: filter information and decide which will reach us and which won’t.

    What they’ve basically done was altering the algorithms they use all the time so that they did not sort the information according to what advertising clients pay for, but according to some other interest.

    You’re right that ladies and gentlemen at FB do it because of their business, but further implications of such research are immense: political manipulation is probably the worst possibility.

    The bottom-line:
    It is creepy
    It is dystopian
    It’s nothing new
    The impact is rather positive: people will realize how the online world works

    1. This is correct.
      I’m not sure how creepy or dystopian it is.
      The more subtle issues or those of choice and agency. I think it is overstated. Something travels by “contagion” but is it “emotional” or just momentary impulse?
      And the bigger picture is that of social control which does not come about just from Facebook or just through advertising.
      The way we are controlled and control one another changes but is always there. It trivialises the subject to attribute it to a dystopic internet.
      Think of how pronounced class was before the 1st WW in this country as an example of how these things change in form if not in essence.
      To come back to your point, imagine improving a user interface (UI). Don’t you (I’m addressing other readers now) think that whether one part has the users attention and if that leads through to desired behaviour all of that may be measured now. And modifying the UI then seeing if that works. Is that a psychological experiment?
      As to the ethics it seems likely to me that Cornell took into account the ethical dimension and wanted to draw attention to it by calling this a psychological experiment which is very little different from that which is everyday UI design improvements.
      Coming around to a broader aspect really the internet and these technologies are in their absolute infancy.
      Think of this website for example.
      Most of the comments here show “emotional contagion” or a binary approach of “I’m with you on that one” but no real discussion.
      There are so many issues here:the nature if the medium which is broadcast, asynchronous, public, textual and with an unknown audience.
      Each factor plays a subtle part.
      Look at where some alternatives are being developed.

  23. “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.”

    Thank you! You put my own thoughts and feelings on this matter into words much more effectively than I have managed to thus far.

  24. What a fantastic perspective, one that should have been considered long ago without all the fuss and hoopla around the experiment…
    Thanks for writing and sharing this…

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