Lab Rats

Clare Dwyer Hogg at the Long and Short:  “Do you remember how you were feeling between 11 and 18 January, 2012? If you’re a Facebook user, you can scroll back and have a look. Your status updates might show you feeling a little bit down, or cheery. All perfectly natural, maybe. But if you were one of 689,003 unwitting users selected for an experiment to determine whether emotions are contagious, then maybe not. The report on its findings was published in March this year: “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks”. How did Facebook do it? Very subtly, by adjusting the algorithm of selected users’ news feeds. One half had a reduced chance of being exposed to positive updates, the other had a more upbeat newsfeed. Would users be more inclined to feel positive or negative themselves, depending on which group they were in? Yes. The authors of the report found – by extracting the posts of the people they were experimenting on – that, indeed, emotional states can be transferred to others, “leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness”.

It was legal (see Facebook’s Data Use Policy). Ethical? The answer to that lies in the shadows. A one-off? Not likely. When revealed last summer, the Facebook example created headlines around the world – and another story quickly followed. On 28 July, Christian Rudder, a Harvard math graduate and one of the founders of the internet dating site OkCupid, wrote a blog post titled “We Experiment on Human Beings!”. In it, he outlined a number of experiments they performed on their users, one of which was to tell people who were “bad matches” (only 30 per cent compatible, according to their algorithm) that they were actually “exceptionally good for each other” (which usually requires a 90 per cent match). OkCupid wanted to see if mere suggestion would inspire people to like each other (answer: yes). It was a technological placebo. The experiment found that the power of suggestion works – but so does the bona fide OkCupid algorithm. Outraged debates ensued, with Rudder defensive. “This is the only way to find this stuff out,” he said, in one heated radio interview. “If you guys have an alternative to the scientific method, I’m all ears.”…

The debate, says Mark Earls, should primarily be about civic responsibility, even before the ethical concerns. Earls is a towering figure in the world of advertising and communication, and his book Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour By Harnessing our True Nature, was a gamechanger in how people in the industry thought about what drives us to make decisions. That was a decade ago, before Facebook, and it’s increasingly clear that his theories were prescient.

He kept an eye on the Facebook experiment furore, and was, he says, heavily against the whole concept. “They’re supporting the private space between people, their contacts and their social media life,” he says. “And then they abused it.”…”