Better controversial than inconsequential?
The media tantrum complex — those who fill continuous air time with breaking news and acrimony have no incentive to point out that the findings of Facebook’s controversial research are all but meaningless.
Facebook too has a sort of perverse incentive to encourage hand wringing over the power of their newsfeed, even though the actual published results suggest its impact is at best a rounding error.
Histrionic headlines, such as Atlantic Monthly’s “Facebook’s Secret Mood Manipulation Experiment” inflate routine testing in to an exposee.
While it may be fun and even cleansing to get worked up about privacy on Facebook — take a breath and look at yourself. Facebook and privacy have been antithetical concepts since its first day. And Facebook isn’t the first company to experiment with customer experience. The music playing in department stores, new car smell, even the air charged with ions in casinos is the product of similar “secret mood research”.
Facebook’s Product is You
Let’s start from an obvious fact of our lives online: When an online service is free to use, it nearly always means that YOU are the product.
Facebook is famous for trying things, measuring impact, and learning what works for improving its experience for users. Is anyone surprised that this ultimately lives in a context of profitability? They seek to optimize their site its to make you a more valuable audience member.
And, though we can wrap such research in neutral sounding term such as “user experience improvement”, design is ultimately not neutral. Systems carry intent, so does research. There’s no surprise that Facebook would want to see what kind of newsfeed items drive use.
I contend the only difference between what Facebook published and the A/B testing done by millions of other sites, is that Facebook published its results in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, rather than a listicle on Copy Blogger.
But do you know what this research about emotional contagion really says?
Facebook’s Research Shows Its Of Little Consequence
Phrases like Emotional Contagion make it sound like Facebook has discovered the plague. But really, its just quantifying the obvious and well known effect of social mirroring.
You already know social mirroring if a drill sergeant has yelled in your face. There’s a visceral response to mirror that aggression, just as viewers of porn mirror arousal, and comedy viewers are swayed by laugh tracks. So, this is less about about discovering a phenomena, than seeing how effective Facebook’s Newsfeed is.
And the research suggests that Facebook’s newsfeed is pretty inconsequential. After showing 689,003 participants a week of newsfeeds with more positive or negative words, Facebook reported “an average of one fewer emotional word, per thousand over the following week.” This homeophatically tiny result suggests that Facebook’s newsfeed really isn’t all that influential.
Facebook’s controversial research may mean NOTHING
Better still, John Grohol points out that Facebook’s researchers never actually measured anyone’s mood at all.
What they did was to count the number of positive or negative words and then infer emotional state from very short postings. The approach of word counting misses negation or ironic context. The statement “This is not a good day” contains one positive word. So, we’re considering a tiny effect, derived through a fairly course inventory of words. Grohol blogs:
Kramer et al. (2014) found a 0.07% — that’s not 7 percent, that’s 1/15th of one percent!! — decrease in negative words in people’s status updates when the number of negative posts on their Facebook news feed decreased. Do you know how many words you’d have to read or write before you’ve written one less negative word due to this effect? Probably thousands.
This isn’t an “effect” so much as a statistical blip that has no real-world meaning.
But neither Facebook or the media, or the echo chamber of retweeters have any reason to characterize that if there is a finding to be drawn, it is that either Facebook’s newsfeed is inconsequential, or that this research is. Again quoting Grohol:
Despite all of these problems and limitations, none of it stops the researchers in the end from proclaiming, “These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks.”
Yes, “Facebook Discovers Massive-Scale Contagion from Social Network” is a much more compelling headline than “Our Newsfeed is Demonstrably Inconsequential“
And so the media tantrum complex goes…ironically drawing engagement through ginned up outrage, just as Facebook’s flawed research on emotional contagion say it can.