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Facebook manipulates your news feed. This probably isn't surprising. But last week it was revealed that for a six-month period in 2012, Facebook experimented with 700,000 users' emotions — purposefully showing positive (if you were lucky) or negative (if you weren't so lucky) stories to see how this impacted your own postings. Sounds a little more alarming, doesn't it? Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg apologized for the miscommunication, and defenders said it's all covered in Facebook's Data Use Policy, but critics maintain that Facebook was out of line here. While Facebook remains in the hot seat for this manipulation, the public outcry begs the question: Would this be as big of a deal if we weren't so addicted to Facebook. Is our Facebook addiction at the crux of this debacle?
How has Facebook wronged you?
Let us count the ways. Facebook researchers missed a few steps when they decided to use Facebook as research ground for how social media can influence your mood. They didn't ask for permission first, they added "research" to the list of how Facebook might use your information in its data use policy four months after the research was completed and Facebook users under the age of 18 were included in the study set. Three strikes and you're out, right? When the research findings were revealed last week in a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the public's response was clear: They were incensed.
Facebook cares about you
As reactions spiraled, Facebook seemed to be equal parts explanatory and apologetic. One of the researchers, Adam D.I. Kramer, responded to the upset — appropriately, ironically — in a public Facebook post. Kramer wrote, "The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product. We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends' negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook."
Diane Lang is the Social Media Manager for BlogHer, the largest community of women who blog, reaching 100 million through blogs and social media each month. Lang uses Facebook both personally and professionally and her reaction to the experiment reveal was dual and reflective of most people's. Lang says, "Personally, I'm horrified that Facebook toyed with our emotions, which for many are shattered and broken. To knowingly alter the feeds negatively could have done serious damage to someone with a fragile psyche. Professionally, of course, I'm fascinated. I'm immensely interested in knowing how social feeds affect our readers and, honestly, it makes me more confident that the right type of content absolutely adds value."
But more importantly, you care about Facebook
So the research findings were admittedly interesting and (at the time) surprising. Kramer said, "We found the exact opposite to what was then the conventional wisdom: Seeing a certain kind of emotion (positive) encourages it rather than suppresses it." Melisa Wells is a writer who blogs at Suburban Scrawl and a social media researcher for BlogHer. Wells wasn't surprised by the research findings in the least. She says, "I didn't really need to read the results in order to know that surrounding one's self with negativity begets negativity, and surrounding one's self with positivity begets positivity. In fact, I've been customizing my news feed for a long time by hiding people who tend to constantly post complaints and other types of negative posts."
While the societal angst caused by the release of the study itself — rather than because of its actual conclusions — wasn't worth the findings, the research was informative. So I think the interesting topic to look into here is why were all of our reactions so intense — and why are they still going strong? Is it because we were truly wronged or is there something else — something more personal — underlying this reaction? After all, Facebook isn't alone in utilizing this process.
Sarah Pelinka is a sixth grade middle school teacher who uses Facebook for personal reasons. She explains, "I guess the reason this little experiment does bother me is because I feel everything has always been, and always will be, manipulated by the people who own "it" (media). Media, in all its content, is skewed and bent in any direction to benefit those who own it." As a regular user of Facebook, Pelinka calls it like it is. She says, "In this case, we're owned by Facebook, they create a pseudo world within our news feed and we're duped... But how naive to think Facebook has the monopoly on this trick. It happens all around us: commercials, advertisements, websites, email, etc."
Pelinka goes on to explain how this works in other arenas. She says, "Sales do this daily, but get me every time. I don't care how you say it: "save $10 when you spend $30 or more" or "30 percent off your entire purchase" or "earn 'store' cash when you buy $25 or more" because no matter which way you slice the deal, you're manipulated into thinking you're always saving and finding a bigger, better deal... And this is all that's needed to make your adrenaline pump as you spend, spend, spend."
Stores do market research to see what kind of language their customers respond "best" to. But, as the customers, we don't get — and stay — angry about being manipulated by deals. They're hardly news-worthy and certainly not anxiety-causing. So what's different about Facebook's study? I think Wells distills it best saying, "The fact is, most of us have become quite dependent on this (currently) free service when it comes to finding people, keeping in touch with people, promoting ourselves, getting the news and so many other things that they have us in their back pocket, really."
And I think this is the rub: Our addiction to Facebook is so commonplace and so overwhelmingly strong that anything amiss with it throws us for the proverbial loop. Facebook addiction has been chronicled as early as 2009. The social networking site became open to the public in 2006 (it was originally just targeted at Harvard students, then opened to college students in the Boston area, all Ivy League college students, most universities, and, finally, the rest of us.). So it only took three years of public consumption for Facebook to start taking up a huge chunk of many of our days — and emotions. In 2009, an article on CNN outing Facebook addiction was considered breaking news. Paula Pile, a therapist interviewed for the article, said, "Problems [with Facebook use] arise when users ignore family and work obligations because they find the Facebook world a more enjoyable place to spend time than the real world." Today, just five years later, this isn't such big news, is it?
Nina Hamza, M.D., is an internal medicine doctor, mother of three and non-Facebook user. In 2014, those last two words are more shocking than "Facebook addiction." Hamza explains that she's off of social media because of how it disconnects us. She says, "I stopped using Facebook about four years ago. There was a news story about Bill Nye the Science Guy fainting mid-speech and then having some slurred speech. No one got up to help him. They all just updated their Facebook statuses and tweeted about it. Somehow it really upset me. I felt we are so far removed from actual life and so involved in the virtual one that we no longer know how to respond appropriately to actual human need. Instead of social media connecting us, I think it's disconnecting us. People in elevators and waiting rooms have their faces buried in their phones "Poking" and "Liking" friends in other countries and past lives instead of looking up and talking to the person actually standing next to them."
I think when we delve deeply, the experiment caused such a stir because Facebook is such a big part of most of our lives. Liz Jostes is an online marketing consultant and co-founder of Eli Rose Social Media, LLC. Jostes says, "I'm not surprised to read about what Facebook did... or that it's an unsettling feeling to think that there's a business that purposely, secretly manipulated you. It makes you concerned about other online activities."
I agree with Jostes and, although upset, I don't see the masses leaving Facebook — therefore the continued angst. The real shift might be more of the public thinking about Facebook as what it is: a business, not a mirror for social reality. In this light, Facebook's market research doesn't seem as personal or detrimental — or all that different than trying out different ad language — does it?
Were you upset by Facebook's research? Why or why not?