I can only imagine what Facebook’s PR team is currently dealing with in light of the news that recently broke surrounding their “social experiment.” For those who haven’t heard, the short version is quite simple. In 2012, a team of Facebook researchers tinkered with the news feeds of roughly 700,000 users for one week. By manipulating the feeds to show either positive or negative posts/updates, Facebook wanted to test if it had any effect on the users’ moods.
Upon hearing this, users around the world took to the web to express their outrage and, in some cases, their support of the psychological experiment. The latter believe Facebook did nothing wrong.
Similar to the way Amazon, for example, uses data to cater their products to our interests, some believe Facebook was just doing what any marketer would—that they’re not alone in doing this. Given our reliance on the web, this is among the many new strategies for marketers to understand their target audience. Realistically, it’s not much different than previous strategies of pre-Internet days. The problem, I think, lies in the fact that many people tend to believe their web activity, particularly on Facebook, is a private matter. Technically, it should be, but we’d be lying to ourselves if we actually believed that was the case.
Others think that while business and marketers have new, albeit somewhat invasive, ways to do their jobs, there’s a fine line between understanding people’s spending habits versus manipulating their emotional state of being. To be honest, I think Facebook already messes with our heads with or without added manipulation. “Keeping up with the Jones’” has only gotten worse since Facebook and similar platforms came about. Even if we don’t like to admit it, I think most of us will secretly agree we’re guilty of comparing our lives and success to that of others via social media. No researcher has to tinker with a news feed to surmise this fact, yet they argue this was the basis for their hypothesis.
However, I stand with the folks who think there’s still a fine line when it comes to online surveillance or monitoring. Whereas other companies might use our web history to adequately push their product, it’s an entirely different thing when a business uses that to alter one’s emotions. One of the researchers recently came out with a public statement vis a Facebook status
, of course, where he defends his team’s actions:
"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. We didn’t clearly state our motivations in the paper."
He goes on to say the research was done in 2012 and that they’ve all learned and come a long way since then, but blaming it on the past doesn’t make it right. At the end of the day, it was still an undisclosed psychological experiment on a portion of Facebook’s loyal users. That’s creepy no matter which way you spin it.
Perhaps the biggest lesson of this for some users is to stop relying on Facebook to satisfy or fulfill your emotional happiness. If you do that, there’s already a problem.