The Global Lab of Human Behavior

Quite an uproar a couple weeks ago over Facebook‘s “latest experiment”. Facebook’s brain trust envision a world of “openness” and “transparency” but getting there involves a methodology originally described as “move fast” and “break things”. Perhaps we’ve grown jaded and cynical enough to fully expect a heavy amount of commercial media manipulation throughout out daily lives. Heck, consider the advertising blitz experienced during a typical ballgame. For sure, focus groups, surverys and market research, etc. are integral parts of a robust modern economy.

But this latest “lean in” over our changing moods and emotional states while we surf the web seems to have crossed a line. The “research team” focused on the appearance of certain words in posts and determined them to be either “positive” or “negative”. They customized the newsfeeds viewed by several hundred thousand users and then noted the subsequent frequency of “negative” or “positive” words in posts that the users created in response to what they saw and read.

Maybe most Facebook users aren’t so surprised by this sort of corporate media manipulation, but such behavior probably runs counter to what they expect from their online social experience, when you really get down to it. The whole thing might seem as benign as  ads containing subliminal messages and/or images. It certainly doesn’t approach the malevolent recklessness of the Tuskeegee experiment of the last century. But just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should, of course.

Many online media sources have compared the subjects selected to “lab rats”. The project usually involved a single happy or sad word per posting. So the manner in which it was conducted doesn’t really seems very scientific at all. Just kind of creepy in the way that Facebook’s Pokes, Tags and ever-changing privacy policies and user agreements seem creepy. Sort of like that big recipe you tried the other night that didn’t quite work out so you fed the leftovers to the dog so it wouldn’t gunk up the trash before you have a chance to take it out later in the evening. Probably no harm done, but nothing you’d want to brag about either.

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