A newly published (March 2014) paper (Experimental Evidence of Massive-scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks) reveals that scientists at Facebook conducted a massive psychological experiment on hundreds of thousands of users by tweaking their feeds and measuring how they felt afterward.
In other words, Facebook decided to try to manipulate some people's emotional states - for science...
The research involved Facebook's News Feed - the stream of status updates, photos and news articles that appears when you first fire up the site.
For a week in January 2012, a group of researchers, variously affiliated with Facebook, Cornell University and the University of California, San Francisco, altered the algorithm that determines what shows up in News Feed for 689,003 people.
One group was shown fewer posts containing words thought to evoke positive emotions, such as,
...while another group was shown fewer posts with negative words, like,
The findings were published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a scientific journal.
The researchers were studying a phenomenon called "emotional contagion," a fancy psychological term for something you've almost certainly experienced:
Researchers have found that emotions can be contagious during face-to-face interactions, when a friend's laugh or smile might lift your spirits.
But what happens online? Facebook was trying to figure that out...
It turns out that, yes, the Internet is just like real life in this way.
In the PNAS article, lead researcher Adam Kramer and his team note that,
And in a statement to The Huffington Post, Facebook offered justification for doing the research.
The researchers' findings aren't exactly trivial.
If positivity begets more positivity online, we may be overblowing the whole idea of "FOMO," or "fear of missing out" - the idea that pixel-perfect beach pictures and other evidence of fun fills Facebook friends with jealousy, not joy.
But until now, the research has mostly fallen into the category of "observational studies" - that is, research that involves someone poring over existing data and trying to draw conclusions from it.
The News Feed manipulation, though, is a different beast...
It's an experiment, in which scientists create the data by tweaking one variable to see if it affects another.
That's what's disconcerting:
If you don't remember agreeing to being a Facebook guinea pig, well, you must not have read all of the site's mind-bogglingly complex terms of service (TOS) when you set up your account.
Within those TOS is language specifying that Facebook members consent to having information about them used for,
Even though this research was not illegal, Susan Fiske, the Princeton University psychology professor who edited the study for PNAS, was queasy about it.
Fiske told The Atlantic: