Uneasy in Digital Zion

During the summer of 2014, two Cornell University scholars and a researcher from Facebook’s Data Science unit published a paper on what they termed “emotional contagion.” They claimed to show that Facebook’s news feed algorithm, the complex set of instructions that determines what shows up where in a news feed, could influence users’ emotional states. Using a data set of more than 689,000 Facebook accounts, they manipulated users’ news feeds so that some people saw more positive posts and others more negative posts. Over time, a slight change was detected in what users themselves put on Facebook: Those who saw more positive posts posted more positive posts of their own, while those who saw more negative posts posted more negative ones. Emotional contagion, the authors concluded, could spread among people without any direct interaction and “without their awareness.”

Some critics lambasted Facebook for its failure to notify users that they were going to be part of a giant experiment on their emotions, but others thought it was cool. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, just seemed confused. “This was part of ongoing research [that] companies do to test different products, and that was what it was; it was poorly communicated,” she said. “And for that communication we apologize. We never meant to upset you.” Facebook wasn’t experimenting with people; it was improving its product. That’s what businesses do: They serve their customers by better understanding their needs and desires. Some might call it manipulation. Facebook calls it product development.

The cofounder of the online dating site OkCupid, Christian Rudder, responded to the uproar with a snide blog post: “We noticed recently that people didn’t like it when Facebook ‘experimented’ with their news feed…. But, guess what, everybody: If you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work.”

Rudder went on to describe some of OkCupid’s experiments, which ranged from removing pictures from profiles to facilitate “blind dates” to altering the algorithm that calculates matches to tell “bad matches” that they were “good matches.” Like Sandberg, Rudder claimed not to understand why people would be so worried about Facebook or OkCupid conducting a few experiments. “We’re only beginning to understand how much we can learn about ourselves and others from the data that is constantly being harvested from us,” said Salon journalist Andrew Leonard after interviewing Rudder. “The more we know, the better armed we are to navigate the future.”

In their responses, Sandberg and Rudder revealed how either clueless or cynical they are about the central importance of social media platforms to users’ emotional lives. Facebook and OkCupid are not simply efficient tools for sharing baby pictures and finding dates in a new city; they are social spaces in which actual people pursue desires and craft lives. Even in the early days of the ARPANET, the Internet forerunner that was designed as an efficient tool for sharing information, networked technologies were, as psychologist Sherry Turkle has said, “taken up as technologies of relationship.”

Saving the Internet From People?

While they acknowledge the extensive experimentation and engineering that goes into improving their sites, Rudder, Sandberg, and other digital media moguls have a vested interest in maintaining the notion that social media like OkCupid and Facebook are just tools that humans use as they see fit. Social media, they insist, are simply means for communicating and connecting with friends and family. Reflecting on OkCupid’s experiments that claimed to show evidence of widespread racial prejudice and a blatant preference for good looks over personality among its users, Rudder concluded that people, not the media, were the problem. “I do wish,” he said, “that people exercised more humanity in using these tools.” Listening to Rudder, one might believe it’s the Internet that needs to be saved from people.7

There is something incongruous in these sometimes giddy, sometimes nonchalant responses of social media’s elite to revelations of data collection and experimentation. On the one hand, Sandberg and Rudder readily acknowledge the massive scale on which Facebook and OkCupid operate, as well as their relative secrecy. In fact, both often celebrate such scales of knowledge as beacons of a new age. At the same time, they exhort those who use social media and digital technologies to think of them as mere tools facilitating desires and intentions that have always have been and will remain subject to human control. According to these conflicting accounts, we are both radically determined and radically free.

Confusion about our digital technologies and their use is not limited to the masters of Silicon Valley. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that while Americans say they are increasingly worried about using social media to share private information, most are unwilling to change their behavior. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed, for example, said they would share information about themselves in order to use the services and tools of digital technology and Internet companies.8 The New York Times referred to this as a “paradox,” but it might be more accurately described as an increasingly widespread unease with the ubiquity, power, and demands of digital technologies.

[By Julia Ticona and Chad Wellmon, originally published in Hedgehog Review Spring 2015 (17:2), Read the full article as a PDF:  TiconaWellmon.]

chad wellmon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s