Two US universities recently conducted a study that manipulated some 689,000 Facebook users’ emotional state by filtering their newsfeeds to promote either positive or negative emotional content.
Findings showed that promoting positive content made users happier while negative content made them unhappier (#rocketscience). Outcry ensued when it was revealed that the participants were manipulated without their consent.
The process has been coined as “emotional contagion”, which definitely has a better ring to it than emotional terrorism.
The most surprising thing about this experiment is that everyone seems to be so surprised about it. Facebook has been manipulating my emotions for years – at least this way we can generate some potentially useful scientific data!
I know the research has arguably been conducted unethically – there is supposed to be something called “informed consent” – but for all I know it was buried in the last Facebook user agreement box I clicked without reading.
Honestly, even if somebody had given me the choice between using Facebook and potentially being manipulated into a bad mood or not using Facebook at all I probably would still have signed up for the Muppet show.
Because I know that there would be nothing “potential” about the devastation I would feel from being cut-off from the heartbeat of the social universe.
I would choose potentially upset over absolutely upset any day of the week.
But let’s take a step back from our justifiable outrage for a moment, think about the information we’ve gained and think about the possibilities.
A happy state of mind is a tough son of a bitch to nail down. It’s like trying to pick up a bar of soap in the shower – just when you think you have it, it slips through your fingers or gets stuck to your back.
What if we could choose an emotional state to be manipulated into? What if the emoticon face you chose at the end of your status update didn’t depict what you were feeling but what you wanted to feel?
During exam week I could do with a productive mood when I am procrastinating on Facebook (since I’m bound to check it eventually), so I set my newsfeed emotional setting to “positive/productive” (imagine a little smiley face wearing a hard hat #patentpending). A third party behind a desk somewhere (say Nevada, perhaps in the same building where the US drone pilots operate) filters all the photos, videos, links and badly-spelt status updates flowing into my feed to create a climate that makes me feel upbeat and more likely to grab the bull by the horns and ride it all the way to tertiary climax.
Think about it. Just got dumped? Lets filter out all those gut-wrenching photos of happy couples and start including more posts from your single friends, you know, the ones who make being alone look good.
Trying to save for a holiday? Cut those links to online shopping sales – I don’t want to see a photo of your new handbag. Show me those panoramic shots of my friend in Spain.
Cleaning up your eating? Get your sexy food-porn Instagrams off my newsfeed. Oh, you baked perfect chocolate brownies just like your Grandma used to make and want to share a photo of the whole steaming pile? Fuck off.
Our experience of reality is already filtered by our individual thoughts, with emotions and focus (#science) making each and every experience unique, so why not our social networking?
My main concern is not the effectiveness of the manipulation but rather who is pulling the strings.
Put me in charge of my own little pantomime and I will sleep soundly.