Too Much Information   /   Spring 2015   /    Too Much Information

Uneasy in Digital Zion

Manipulation…or product development?

Chad Wellmon and Julia Ticona

Gary Waters/Ikon Images/Getty.

During the summer of 2014, two Cornell University scholars and a researcher from Facebook’s Data Science unit published a paper on what they termed “emotional contagion.” They claimed to show that Facebook’s news feed algorithm, the complex set of instructions that determines what shows up where in a news feed, could influence users’ emotional states. Using a data set of more than 689,000 Facebook accounts, they manipulated users’ news feeds so that some people saw more positive posts and others more negative posts. Over time, a slight change was detected in what users themselves put on Facebook: Those who saw more positive posts posted more positive posts of their own, while those who saw more negative posts posted more negative ones. Emotional contagion, the authors concluded, could spread among people without any direct interaction and “without their awareness.”1

Some critics lambasted Facebook for its failure to notify users that they were going to be part of a giant experiment on their emotions, but others thought it was cool.2 Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, just seemed confused. “This was part of ongoing research [that] companies do to test different products, and that was what it was; it was poorly communicated,” she said. “And for that communication we apologize. We never meant to upset you.”3 Facebook wasn’t experimenting with people; it was improving its product. That’s what businesses do: They serve their customers by better understanding their needs and desires. Some might call it manipulation. Facebook calls it product development.

The cofounder of the online dating site OkCupid, Christian Rudder, responded to the uproar with a snide blog post: “We noticed recently that people didn’t like it when Facebook ‘experimented’ with their news feed…. But, guess what, everybody: If you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work.”4

Rudder went on to describe some of OkCupid’s experiments, which ranged from removing pictures from profiles to facilitate “blind dates” to altering the algorithm that calculates matches to tell “bad matches” that they were “good matches.” Like Sandberg, Rudder claimed not to understand why people would be so worried about Facebook or OkCupid conducting a few experiments. “We’re only beginning to understand how much we can learn about ourselves and others from the data that is constantly being harvested from us,” said Salon journalist Andrew Leonard after interviewing Rudder. “The more we know, the better armed we are to navigate the future.”5

In their responses, Sandberg and Rudder revealed how either clueless or cynical they are about the central importance of social media platforms to users’ emotional lives. Facebook and OkCupid are not simply efficient tools for sharing baby pictures and finding dates in a new city; they are social spaces in which actual people pursue desires and craft lives. Even in the early days of the ARPANET, the Internet forerunner that was designed as an efficient tool for sharing information, networked technologies were, as psychologist Sherry Turkle has said, “taken up as technologies of relationship.”6

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