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The Facebook Experiment

July 16, 2014 Leave a comment

An interesting tidbit about Facebook was in the news recently. Apparently, Facebook played around with newsfeeds to make them more positive / negative. They were trying to determine if mood of the timeline affects the mood of the user. Evidently it does.

Predictably, the pitchforks have come out at the supposed audacity of Facebook to manipulate people like that. I am not completely sure what I feel about it, because I haven’t really given it a whole lot of thought.

But there are a lot of different aspects to this story, that I am not sure how to reconcile… Besides, thinking takes time, which I have limited of. And it’s not like you pay me for high-quality journalism. So, dear reader, I am just going to subject you to a laundry list of the initial unstructured mess that is my brain, on the subject:

  • I am scared… Are we really sheeple, people? Does the mood of a series of posts on Facebook really cause our mood to be changed? Are we THAT easily manipulated? As a corollary, how much misplaced confidence do we have in ourselves, that we walk through life thinking that we are immune to the ways of the world, when all it takes to influence us are a few written words on the screen?
  • How does this help Facebook? Will Facebook try now, to be “your happy place”? Is Facebook’s business model going to be to keep you happy, so that you keep coming back. I wrote a post, earlier, on the  “Like” button. Is that just an extension of the “keep people happy” philosophy?
  • Will this philosophy work for Facebook? Or is it going to backfire for them, spectacularly? At what point will the constant stream of “happiness” attributed to others, start making us jealous and negative instead of happy, as intended, so we “flip the tables” so to speak, and never return to Facebook again?
  • Are we increasingly becoming swathes of data, in the eyes of these companies that have our personal information? At what point is the company obligated (if at all) to view us as human beings, and consider that manipulation of our feelings is not “just another experiment”?
  • On the other hand, what cause do we have for outrage? Facebook never promised that we will see the truth. They provide us one way to view our relationships and they’ve never said it is the truth. Besides, A/B testing is a reality for most internet companies. Isn’t this just another form of A/B testing? Why, then, do we expect to be told about it?
  • If Facebook as a service, has a goal of seeing us happy, then isn’t Facebook within its rights to make changes to it’s “product” to gauge customer reaction? Do we have a right to demand that we be told about it?
  • What is the unwritten set of expectations that Facebook is fulfilling, and that we expect them to fulfil? At what point do the “ethics of humankind” supercede the “nature of Facebook’s business”? Are people just angry because we’re scared of how easily we are manipulated? Do we see this as an invasion of privacy (which I don’t think it is)? Are we just mad at Facebook because we don’t like being guinea pigs without knowing about it?
  • Does it warrant this amount of outrage? We don’t really think of all the ramifications of giving up our personal data and information to services as long as we get some value out of it. Every new shiny feature on Google of Facebook comes at the cost of our information. Privacy, in this day and age, is just dead. Why then, should it matter at all what Facebook does?
  • Is this indicative of the general distrust of Facebook vis-a-vis other large tech companies? I mean, I doubt there would’ve been such a big hue-and-cry if Google had done this…
  • If this is indeed how Facebook can influence us, how much about our relationships is defined by Facebook? If Facebook doesn’t show me status updates by certain people or businesses, how does that impact my actual relationship with them? Do I forget about some people because I never see updates? If so, how much power does Facebook really have over not only individuals, but also groups and indeed, corporations (by dint of wielding this power over individuals)?

I think I’m a little bemused, and quite a bit scared… What do you think?

Categories: facebook, technology

To Like or Not to Like…

July 10, 2014 1 comment

I’ve been getting back on to social media after a fairly long hiatus. And most social media services have changed a little bit in that time. What hasn’t changed however, is how stuff get’s shared around these places.

Google has +1, Tumblr has “reblogging”, Twitter has “retweet” and Facebook has the “like”… And they rely on these nifty sharing mechanisms to decide what you see.. what bubbles to the top, so to speak.

Out of the four, however, only Facebook has something that is a known word with a known meaning. And that makes things interesting…

Linguistically speaking, liking something is to inherently tag it as “good”. In Facebook’s context therefore, there’s likely to be a cognitive bias towards “liking” only stuff that is actually worth liking. That means, that status update someone made about cancer, or losing a loved one, or losing their dog isn’t going to get “likes” . and is therefore not really going to be on your timeline for a long time.

On other platforms, it’s easier for those kind of things to bubble up, A +1, or a reblog isn’t as “emotional” …

I wonder which is better? Personally, I think a true representation of what your friends are interested in is served by something like +1, or “Share” or “Retweet” or “Reblog” because it doesn’t have a positive or negative connotation attached to it. It just indicates your “support” toward the content. With like, however, you’re likely to not get a balanced picture.

Is this a flaw, then, on Facebook’s part? Did they miss an opportunity to be “truer” to the world? Or is “like” by design and they WANT only other people’s happiness to show through in your timelines, because they know that’s what we want to see? Is Facebook banking on the fact that a lot of us are voyeurs who live through others – either sharing in people’s happiness, or being jealous of it.. which is why we keep coming back to Facebook?

Or is “Like” just such a “brand” in itself now, that changing it to “Share” or “Support” just doesn’t make any sense any more?

Perhaps only Mark Zuckerburg knows..

Categories: facebook, technology