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Facebook's icky psychology experiment is actually business as usual

Fredric Paul | July 8, 2014
Unless you've been living under a rock for the last couple weeks, you've no doubt heard about Facebook's creepy, secret, psychological experiment designed to see if negative newsfeed posts inspire more negativity -- and vice versa. I don't want to excuse Facebook's behavior, which has prompted a (sort-of) apology from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, as well as an ongoing stream of condemnation and outrage from legitimate psychologists and Internet commentators. I too was weirded out by the revelations, feeling manipulated and that somehow my privacy had been unfairly invaded without my permission.

Of course, this was an experiment designed to figure out what might happen, not a plan to elicit a specific result, like selling cars or deodorant. But advertisers carry out all kinds of tests all the time. Amazon, for example, is the king of A/B testing, constantly tweaking everything from prices to page designs to see which works better. In fact, Facebook's manipulation may be less egregious because the company wasn't really trying to drive specific behavior.

Facebook's real issue?

So here's what I think is behind all the outrage. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many people think of Facebook differently than they do advertisements, retailers, and traditional media. Because our Facebook newsfeed is populated by our friends, it's easy to forget that it's not a clear window into what our friends are saying to us, but merely a stream of content that Facebook is choosing to show us.

The Facebook user agreement (which no one, including me, bothers to read) apparently makes it clear that the company can mess around with the newsfeed or any other part of the service, at any time for any reason without any notice. If you didn't know that, you simply weren't paying attention. As many people have pointed out, when dealing with free services like Facebook (or Google, or Twitter, or many others), we users are not the customers...we are the product. Having that reality slapped in our faces is what is really bothering people here.

Ironically, I actually think the controversy is a good thing. I still use Facebook - it remains a great way to stay in touch with people I might otherwise not communicate with and a powerful channel to reach many people at once. But Facebook's misguided experiment makes it easier to remember what's really going on with social media services (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and harder to be naive about their real priorities. Seeing a few extra negative (or positive) posts back in 2012 seems a small price to pay for that essential reminder.

 

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