I just finished listening to +TWiT from this weekend with +Leo Laporte, +Natali Morris, +Tim Stevens, and Denise Howell. I don't find myself saying this about TWiT that often, but I disagree with the panel's thoughts on the recent revelations about Facebook's experimentation on their users news feeds. (http://www.contriving.net/link/fr)
So many people seem to be in such a tizzy over this, but I just don't get it.
The very nature of human interaction is to influence others. In today's world, we influence other people's emotions via advertisements. We influence other people's emotions via "addictive" video games like Farmville or Simpson's Tapped Out. We influence other people's emotions via how we choose to dress. We influence other people's emotions via the type of car we drive. All of this is intentional.
The more organized examples of influencing other people's emotions is done for a profit! Heck, Zynga employs researchers whose sole purpose is to game your emotions and get you to spend more money. The same holds true for advertising agencies, corporations, and political campaigns.
On the show +Tim Stevens brings up the point that websites do A/B testing all of the time to see what kind of content or presentation causes more user engagement. That is exactly the same sort of thing. Emotions drive user engagement. *Websites manipulate your emotions to make more money.* This is normal. This is part of being human.
When you talk to the lady at the DMV you slap a smile on your face so you can manipulate her emotions in your favor so she'll hurry you through the process. When you take your date to a fancy restaurant, you're manipulating their emotions for some desired outcome.
The majority of the time you're consciously or unconsciously partaking in a behavior to manipulate the emotions of those around you in your favor.
Facebook's experiment isn't any worse than any of these. In fact, if you want to make a value judgement, it's probably the least "bad" out of them all, as the results of their experiment were published.
Finally, Leo brings up the point that the study was stupid because the results were obvious. I have several things to say about that.
First of all, I don't think the results are completely obvious. Yes, I would have predicted the results they got with a fair amount of confidence. However, it's not out of the realm of possibility that people just don't care about their news feeds enough to let it affect them, or to see the opposite happen…namely for people to post more positive stories in "retaliation" against negative news feeds.
Secondly, you could extract a lot of nuance out of such a study. Maybe, for each of the types of responses I detail in the last paragraph, there are groups of people who consistently respond in each manner. That would be an interesting and useful result.
Lastly, just because you think the results of an experiment are obvious, doesn't mean the experiment is not worth doing. You don't know for sure the results until you do them, and how wonderful is it when an experiment dis-confirms your beliefs? Basically, using "obvious result" as the determining factor in choosing whether to do an experiment is a bad idea.
I'm no fan of Facebook. I think it's a time wasting cesspool out of which most can extract very minimal amounts of value, and I only visit it a few times a year. I just can't get excited about this relatively (if not absolutely) small experiment they did amidst the vast and turbulent sea of emotional manipulation we live in…particularly when the most pernicious examples are for profit and we accept those with barely a peep.
A lot of people have some sort of intuitive, it-just-feels-wrong, response to this story and I just don't get it.
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