The Facebook Experiment, Briefly Noted

More than likely, you’ve recently heard about Facebook’s experiment in the manipulation of user emotions. I know, Facebook as a whole is an experiment in the manipulation of user emotions. Fair enough, but this was a more pointed experimented that involved the manipulation of what user’s see in their News Feeds. Here is how the article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  summarized the significance of the findings:

“We show, via a massive (N = 689,003) experiment on Facebook, that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. We provide experimental evidence that emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people (exposure to a friend expressing an emotion is sufficient), and in the complete absence of nonverbal cues.”

Needless to say (well except to Facebook and the researchers involved), this massive psychological experiment raises all sorts of ethical questions and concerns. Here are some of the more helpful pieces I’ve found on the experiment and its implications:

Update: Here are two more worth considering:

Those four six pieces should give you a good sense of the variety of issues involved in the whole situation, along with a host of links to other relevant material.

I don’t have too much to add except two quick observations. First, I was reminded, especially by Gurstein’s post, of Greg Ulmer’s characterization of the Internet as a “prothesis of the unconscious.” Ulmer means something like this: The Internet has become a repository of the countless ways that culture has imprinted itself upon us and shaped our identity. Prior to the advent of the Internet, most of those memories and experiences would be lost to us even while they may have continued to be a part of who we became. The Internet, however, allows us to access many, if not all, of these cultural traces bringing them to our conscious awareness and allowing us to think about them.

What Facebook’s experiment suggests rather strikingly is that such a prosthesis is, as we should have known, a two-way interface. It not only facilitates our extension into the world, it is also a means by which the world can take hold of us. As a prothesis of our unconscious, the Internet is not only an extension of our unconscious, it also permits the manipulation of the unconscious by external forces.

Secondly, I was reminded of Paul Virilio’s idea of the general or integral accident. Virilio has written extensively about technology, speed, and accidents. The accident is an expansive concept in his work. In his view, accidents are built-in to the nature of any new technology. As he has frequently put it, “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash … Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.”

The general or integral accident is made possible by complex technological systems. The accident made possible by a nuclear reactor or air traffic is obviously of a greater scale than that made possible by the invention of the hammer. Complex technological systems create the possibility of cascading accidents of immense scale and destructiveness. Information technologies also introduce the possibility of integral accidents. Virilio’s most common examples of these information accidents include the flash crashes on stock exchanges induced by electronic trading.

All of this is to say that Facebook’s experiment gives us a glimpse of what shape the social media accident might take. An interviewer alludes to this line from Virilio: “the synchronizing of collective emotions that leads to the administration of fear.” I’ve not been able to track down the original context, but it struck me as suggestive in light of this experiment.

Oh, and lastly, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg issued an apology of sorts. I’ll let Nick Carr tell you about it.

8 thoughts on “The Facebook Experiment, Briefly Noted

  1. Thanks tor the thoughts and links. The Virilio quote prompted a strain of thought that quickly reminded me how wary we all must be to resist mob action — to choose our emotional responses rather than dimply run with them.

  2. I wonder if the social media accidents have more to do with wrecking of relationships than causing unhappiness in individuals. I know this experiment was in emotional manipulation, but my sense from my time on Facebook was that relationships could much more easily be the casualties. And I’m sure that Facebook is also in the business of relationship manipulation, both strengthening and weakening.
    These are less global catastrophes like a shipwreck or a nuclear spill than a bond of friendship or love stretched beyond its ability to hold. Though perhaps some global epidemics may be possible also…

  3. Michael,
    Thanks for this great collection of articles related to the Facebook experiment. I found the uncomputing post to be most helpful: a renunciation of social media. I, like Alan Jacobs writes, left Facebook awhile ago and haven’t looked back since. To amend these circumstances, I’m reading Gene Sharp’s monograph, From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation (The New Press, 2012). For those interested in techniques surrounding and rationale for non-violent struggle–or political defiance–it’s unparalleled.

    For freedom,

  4. Yes, it’s a cautionary tale. But to be honest I don’t understand what is being talked about. If I show you a nice picture in a book or a disturbing picture in real time, am I not also doing a transfer of emotional state? And isn’t all advertising (and most news media) also an attempt to manipulate emotion and behaviour? I am a card carrying luddite and bemoan most of what social media is, but am I missing something to think that this isn’t the most insidious of its downsides?

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