Yesterday afternoon, the internet started freaking out about a Facebook experiment in 2012. The friendly social network a kid uses to connect the world changed your view of it for research purposes. It was a way for Facebook to see if they could manipulate your emotional state.
For one week in January 2012, data scientists messed with the statuses that 689,003 users saw on their news feeds. They flooded some people with happy or positive words, and they hit other users with content that was sadder than your average humblebrag. The idea was to test if the messaging would rub off and show up in your own posts like an “emotional contagion.”
To be clear: I always thought that sociologists should analyze what drives what people post, but this tampering is creepy. Instead of tinkering with the overwhelming content deluge that is a Facebook feed, it would be less invasive to see how people celebrate, confess, support and rage.
But changing your news feeds was all legal. We donate our habits for “data analysis, testing, [and] research.” In Facebook’s terms of service that no one ever reads, they asked if it would be cool if they pumped us full of downer updates. We said, “yes, sign me up to be an emotional lab rat.”
An author of the study and a Facebook employee, Adam D.I. Kramer, said this on a public Facebook post about the experiment.
“And at the end of the day, the actual impact on people in the experiment was the minimal amount to statistically detect it. Having written and designed this experiment myself, I can tell you that our goal was never to upset anyone. […] In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety.”
It worked. The Facebook emotional contagion effect spreads into your psyche. More negative news feeds led to negative status updates, and the more positive news feeds led to positive status updates. You don’t even have to interact with someone pissed off about the World Cup to share that moment of sadness you feel when you have to face facts: you’re done growing. You just log on to Facebook, wait for the contagion to happen and your friends’ varying states of mind can tell you how to feel.
They’re probably invading our space more than this right now. But at least teenagers are safe.
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