In defence of Facebook's controversial news feed experiment

Facebook has landed itself in a heap of trouble this week having admitted to running a secret experiment on some of its users, leading to more questions about privacy and ethics and an apology from COO, Sheryl Sandberg. However not everyone views this with suspicion, as David Jackson, senior strategist for FCB Inferno explains.

Facebook’s ‘emotion contagion' experiment, in which the social media giant edited feeds to highlight either positive or negative items, has caused outrage among users and the media alike.

I personally find this experiment fascinating; to do an emotional experiment with a sample of nearly 700,000 people would be very hard and prohibitively expensive. So, what a fantastic opportunity Facebook has with access to 1 billion users to further understand human behaviour. The strategy department at FCB Inferno recently completed an interesting course in behavioural economics from Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational) and this experiment is not dissimilar to some of the work in human behaviour that Dan has been doing.

With the massive rise of social media we must understand the emotional impact it has on us, though studies have already shown that the more interaction someone has on Facebook the more concerned they are with their physical appearance. We can also no longer hide away and forget ex-partners as their every move is documented for us to see and cyber bulling is a growing problem in schools. Both of these examples have caused upsetting news stories lately.

Social media has an emotional impact on every user and all this experiment was trying to ascertain was what impact the sentiment of our networks has on our own behaviour and emotional state. I suppose the results are not that surprising, happy people make us happy, but the level in which a Facebook news feed can influence our emotions is slightly concerning and maybe we should be questioning that and not the experiment itself.

There is an on-going backlash against personal data privacy and this trend is growing, but I think it is getting to the stage of complaining for the sake of complaining. We have Facebook accounts and openly give them data. I say how they run their website is down to them. They want to improve their service and get us to spend more time on site, if you don’t like that, close your account, it’s really that simple.

The thing is, the majority of people don’t understand the extent in which their personal data is used every day to deliver both content and advertising. Online digital manipulation is happening all the time without us knowing or complaining, so much so that two different people ‘googling’ ‘Apple’ could be shown leading results as different as the fruit and the iPhone based on their online footprint.

We have learnt more about the human brain over the last few years than ever before, we believe we are all individual and unique but we herd like animals and our behaviour is surprisingly predictable. I personally believe that the more we can learn about what influences our behaviour the better.

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