Everyone’s missing the weirdest thing about this controversial Facebook study


Surprise: Facebook has been using us as lab rats.

study showing that Facebook once tried to manipulate some users’ emotions has sparked outrage.

But I’m not sure why this would be a big surprise. The company isn’t known for showing much restraint in its quest to grab as large a share of our attention, and the resulting ad dollars, as possible. A recent admission to a half decade’s worth of sneakiness around status update settings is just one example.

Of course, we Facebook users get something out of the deal, too: Through the easy access to information about what other people are up to, we get an enhancement to our social life.

At least in theory. One often-discussed issue is that viewing seemingly positive things on Facebook — a friend’s career success or marriage, for instance — can actually make us feel bad about ourselves. The study was undertaken because “we felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out,” said Adam Kramer, the Facebook data scientist behind the study.

And so Facebook created an algorithm to test this out. The study involved tweaking some users’ newsfeeds to see how they responded when certain posts — ones with words tied to negative or positive emotions — were omitted. The experiment was conducted in 2012 and affected about 700,000 users.

Kramer says the whole notion in question was debunked. “We found the exact opposite to what was then the conventional wisdom: Seeing a certain kind of emotion (positive) encourages it rather than suppresses is,” he wrote.

And that’s the strangest part about this study. It’s not that Facebook is OK with making us its guinea pigs. This should shock no one.

The weirdest part, I believe, is that Facebook would claim it’s debunked the notion that users often feel bad after seeing other people’s success.

Only the very most bulletproof among us can say that they’ve never had this happen to them on Facebook. I’m sure most of us would love to be free of envy and comparing ourselves to others. But that’s not reality — and so, neither is this study.

Image of envious egg via Shutterstock.

Kyle Alspach has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since 2005 and was one of the original staff writers at BetaBoston.
Follow Kyle on Twitter