Social media giant Facebook let slip last month that it conducted a social experiment on about 700,000 unknowing users in January, 2012.
For one week, Facebook changed the news feed of those users to show, in half the cases, more positive posts, and in the other half, more negative posts.
The experiment came about as a response to complaints from some users that seeing their friends brag about how wonderful their lives are actually made people feel bad about themselves.
The experiment found the opposite to be true: people who saw more positive posts in their news feed were more likely to write positive status updates; while those who saw more negative posts wrote more unhappy updates during the week of the experiment.
The study was published in June in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was conducted jointly by Facebook and Cornell University.
It was the first study to suggest that people’s moods rub off on one another even when they are not in the same room, even when the connection is virtual rather than physical.
Our emotions can be affected by the people we encounter even when we don’t pick up body language or tone.
It’s certainly not surprising results: I know I tend to pass over the posts of friends who often whine on Facebook, but I never skip over the people who have a positive attitude or a humorous take on difficult experiences.
And, for the most part, I try to be positive or at least funny in my own posts. To me, Facebook is not the place to vent about what’s annoying you. That’s what family is for.
But Facebook’s experiment — which really reveals little we didn’t already know about human nature — is having more of an impact because of the presumed invasion of privacy.
Those 700,000 Facebook users who were part of the experiment — and Facebook is not saying who they are — did not consent to what essentially consists of a psychological test.
Facebook actually came out and apologized on Sunday. It said that the effect on users was only “the minimal amount to statistically detect it” and that users could have seen the posts that were missing from their news feed by going to the individual page of each friend.
But Facebook also admitted that the backlash was probably bigger than the advantages it gained from conducting the experiment.
“In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety,” said researcher Adam Kramer.
It’s important to remember that when Facebook talks about the benefits of controlling your news feed, it is not talking about making its users happy.
We who have a Facebook profile are not Facebook’s clients. Advertisers are its clients, and we are the product.
Facebook doesn’t charge us to use its service; it charges advertisers to reach us.
That’s because Facebook is not trying to make us happy. It wants to keep us around, sure, but we are a means to an end, and the end is profit that we don’t directly provide.
I used to get upset when Facebook changed the way the news feed operated. I don’t like targeted advertising (Facebook somehow knew I was pregnant before we had announced it to anyone, and it keeps trying to sell me a T-shirt with a Canadian flag in the shape of Australia) and I really wish I could just see everything that each of my friends posts in sequential order.
But I know better than to complain now. Our online privacy has eroded so quickly across all social media platforms that we are all suffering something akin to whiplash. Nothing you put online is truly private. Trying to keep track of privacy agreements would be a full-time job.
All we can do is keep at the front of our mind that our news feed is tailored to sell us stuff. In keeping up to date with friends near and far, we are making ourselves available to advertisers. And the content that we put online is not just for the eyes of our own contacts. It’s the public persona we present to the world.
In short, folks: Facebook may not cost anything to use, but it doesn’t come for free.
Sally MacDonald is a reporter at the Cranbrook Daily Townsman