It came out this week that in 2012, Facebook ran a short but very large experiment on its technically willing, but uninformed, user base. Users’ newsfeeds were tweaked to show status updates and links of varying levels of emotional content. Some users were shown a higher concentration of negative or sad stories, some users got the opposite, in an effort to discover if Facebook’s general climate can effect emotional change. Obvious but upsetting conclusion: yes it can. The result of the study is unsurprising, but it’s hardly the point. Facebook is where we store and present our life to the world. It’s always seemed to me to be in a place where it has a responsibility to its users to be safe, stable, and trustworthy. In practice, of course, it neglects this duty and instead acts as any capitalist entity would, by exploiting the vast stores of data and potential ad targets. We are subjects in a petri dish that may at any point be utilized for social engineering experimentation, and with this newest revelation, we see that Facebook, no longer satisfied to know and sell everything about our virtual selves, is now directly shaping them.
There’s plenty of people who already figured this kind of thing was going on. Facebook has moved far beyond the point of pretending it isn’t selling your information, the contents of your private messages, the messages you start to write but then delete in anxious cowardice. And it says something that while this experiment caught me by surprise, it’s not surprising in the least that Facebook would do it. Data is Facebook’s bread and butter, so running experiments to produce new types of data makes perfect sense.
Adam Kramer, the author of the study that analyzed the unsent messages mentioned above, is the same data nerd that coordinated this experiment. Asked in an interview why he joined the Facebook team, he answered:
“Facebook data constitutes the largest field study in the history of the world.”
This is an attitude not foreign to MMOs such as World of Warcraft and EVE Online. Gigantic virtual spaces have long been considered extremely useful resources for scientists pondering issues that involve populations. In WoW, a bugged boss fight caused a deadly plague that swept through many servers, turning newbie zones and capitol cities into ghost towns. Player-led attempts to manage and avoid the plague, along with admin-designated quarantine zones, were studied for insights into epidemics.
EVE Online, an economics-heavy space sim MMO, has a player-run economy and a healthy dose of diplomacy, as well as huge amounts of space piracy, financial schemes, and scams. With full blessing from the developers to play the game however you like, a player’s only barrier to messing with the economy is a matter of resources and their own moral scruples. In EVE, some economists take advantage of a game world where the sometimes volatile environment lets them gather data from new or unpopular styles of economics.
Facebook is outside of both those scenarios. It isn’t a game. It’s touted as kind of an expression and extension of your real life, and many people consider it necessary for various reasons. Someone without a Facebook profile may be considered suspicious or antisocial. An ideal Facebook user is engaged in the virtual (but also real) community, sharing their life, feelings, photos, interests. While there are plenty of people who quit Facebook and do fine, proving it to be a frivolity, that really isn’t how it works most of the time you’re actually using the site. It feels important, it becomes personal. What you’re supposed to do with Facebook is invest your self. You establish a second life, pun sort of kind of intended.