Weapons of Mass Contagion: why our amazement and anger at Facebook’s emotion experiment is misdirected

facebook Statement of Rights and Responsibilities

a Wordle of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities which “derives from the Facebook Principles, and is our terms of service that governs our relationship with users and others who interact with Facebook. By using or accessing Facebook, you agree to this Statement.” source

“We’re walking backwards into the future” observed Mark Holden as he introduced Jason Silva at PHD’s keynote at Cannes this year. his elegant observation describes how we can only see the future by looking at what has already happened, we project back over our shoulders to imagine what wonders are to come.

but every now and again we get to peek over our shoulder. occasionally the curtain that hides tomorrow’s world slips, and we get a glimpse of what is to come … and sometimes we come to suspect that our future may already be here. and sometimes we don’t like what we see.

such a slip occurred today when it was revealed that in 2012 Facebook collaborated with academics from Cornell and the University of California in an experiment to manipulate the news feeds of 689,000 users’ home pages … discovering in the process that – through a process known as ’emotional contagion’ the social network could actually make people feel more positive or negative.

they found that exposure to friends’ ‘positive emotional content’ led to fewer positive posts by those users. the opposite – an increase in negative posts occurred when exposure to ‘negative emotional content’ increased.

the reaction has been strong and has emerged from every side of the debate. Clay Johnson of the Barack Obama’s 2008 online presidential campaign commented that “The Facebook ‘transmission of anger’ experiment is terrifying”, whilst professor of law at Maryland University James Grimmelmann said Facebook had failed to gain ‘informed consent’ for the research. Even Jim Sheridan of Britain’s Commons media select committee, weighed in:

“This is extraordinarily powerful stuff and if there is not already legislation on this, then there should be to protect people … They are manipulating material from people’s personal lives and I am worried about the ability of Facebook and others to manipulate people’s thoughts in politics or other areas. If people are being thought-controlled in this kind of way there needs to be protection and they at least need to know about it.”

above quotes via The Guardian

it should be noted that the sheer audacity of a member of the UK Government criticizing data protection is the equivalent of the pot not just calling the kettle black, but hiring the Red Arrows to sky-write in big flashing rainbow letters “that kettle is black and this pot says so” in the skies above London. the UK Government’s (and silent Opposition’s) lack of response to the GCHQ Tempora revelations leaves them with little latitude to point the finger.

and yet they are pointing. and they’re not alone … in fact a small queue is forming around the block at Menlo Park to join in calls for “down with this sort of thing”.

the response is not surprising. its one of (1) our amazement that social contagion exists and is possible at such scale (2) concern that it appears to be so easy to manipulate and (3) anger at the revelation that as the curtain slipped, it revealed that as our lives, adventures, and hook-ups migrate online – we are more exposed, more vulnerable, more subject to the influence of (in the presence of doubt, assumed) dark forces.

if an algorithm can make me happier what does that say about me? if a social network can make me sad what does that say about my ability to self-determine who I am?

and yet this is the deal. this is the contract. every one of us who uses a social network does so with an inherent and reasonable value exchange. the problem isn’t the contract people have made with Facebook or any other social platform … the problem is that most people don’t stop to think about the fact that they’ve signed a contract in the first place.

until a decade ago our contract with media providers and marketing was one of an attention-based value exchange. brands paid for space that paid for content to which we gave our attention in exchange for getting that content for free. brands used that attention to generate reach which led to awareness and sales.

but the contract changed, its just that most people haven’t realised. the contract isn’t just attention based, its now also information based. a new generation of media platforms trade not in attention but information. Facebook trades in information about every aspect of our lives. Google sits on the largest database of intention information in the solar system. platforms sell this information to brands who use it to target, re-target, content create, segment, insight-generate and even start one-on-one conversations with us.

the information they’re using is ours. most people gave it away freely and willingly in a value exchange. an un-negotiated contract in which we handed over data for utility. and our data has bought us riches – Google’s search engine, Spotify’s music streaming, Facebook’s continual partial presence to everyone we know, or the credibility we get from the adulation of our #nofilter Instagram pic.

none of this came for free, we gladly paid for it with our information.

utility, information, education, inspiration, connection, entertainment, advice and Tinder swipes all paid for with information through a contract the existence of which most people are unaware. until the curtain slips.

people shouldn’t be amazed and angry by Facebook’s ability to unleash weapons of mass contagion. they should be amazed and angry that they rushed so headlong into a new contract without considering the implications. our anger is misdirected. Facebook and media organisations like them have created amazing utility in the world. if you’re going to get angry get angry with yourself for thinking that there was ever such a thing as a free lunch Instagram pic.

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