We’re the guinea pigs of experiments by Facebook and OkCupid! But we were kind of asking for it.
By now, most of us are aware of the fact that the evil geniuses at Facebook and OkCupid have been experimenting with us for quite some time. Naturally, there is a lot of outrage over the matter, and understandably so. No one likes to hear that they have been a part of a real-life Truman Show-like test environment, and by all accounts, that’s the case. But are these networking giants completely to blame?
First, let’s take a look at exactly what it is Facebook and OkCupid have done.
The Story Behind the Facebook and OkCupid Experiments
In March, an issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was published featuring a very interesting article. It appeared that in 2012, Facebook decided to run a silent study on 689,003 users, testing to see if they could alter their emotions based on content shared to news feeds. Put simply, an algorithm was developed by the Facebook Data Science Team to omit keywords associated with positive or negative emotions and measure the results that had on its users.
When people found out about the experiment, they were not wowed by the anomaly of human emotion (we won’t get into the findings here). It was quite the opposite. They were furious about the experiment. AnimalNewYork.com wrote, “Apparently what many of us feared is already a reality: Facebook is using us as lab rats, and not just to figure out which ads we’ll respond to but to actually change our emotions.”
Image Credit: Shutterstock. Used under license.
A little more recently (at the end of July) it was revealed the OkCupid had done something very similar. A July 28th blog post on OkCupid very unapologetically confirmed that they had, in fact, been experimenting on its users as well. Having seen the PR nightmare that Facebook has been dealing with, they decided to steer into the skid: “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.” (Admittedly, the tone of the post was a smart move by the PR team at OkCupid.)
Granted, OkCupid’s experiments were more about how their platform works rather than trying to “manipulate” emotions, so to speak. But at its core, the issue is still the same: people feel as though they have been lied to and used like lab rats. Even though the experiments described by OkCupid are designed to improve the performance and accuracy of its service.
Now both Facebook and OkCupid might be investigated by the Federal Trade Commission, on the request of a Virginia Senator. (But we can probably assume that not much will come of that.)
So, the real question we have to ask is this: are companies like Facebook and OkCupid entirely at fault here, or are we a little too quick to check the box stating that we agree to Terms & Conditions?
Why We Need to Take Responsibility
Facebook is a business. OkCupid is a business. Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google and any other place where we spend an abundance of time on the Internet are businesses. As businesses, they employ large legal staffs to protect them when they decide to use our information to conduct these kinds of studies and experiments. And they make that very clear.
There are plenty of privacy laws that protect us, and those are important. When companies violate those laws, they deserve to be punished (a la Snapchat). But when we sign up to use these networks, we should recognize that our information won’t necessarily be stored in an impenetrable cloud that only we, as individuals, can access. It might be used for a number of reasons.
In the case of OkCupid, the company ran experiments to try and get a better understanding of what drove success, then modify their service to capitalize on that. With regards to Facebook, it’s easy to see why their experiment might be perceived as unethical. People do not like being toyed with, and that’s exactly how they feel. There wasn’t an effort to improve the user experience, they simply wanted to find out if a claim made about the network – that people feel less positive when their News Feeds are flooded with positive articles – was true or false.
Now, by show of hands, how many people read the Terms & Conditions they are presented with when signing up for a new online service? (You can put your hands down – I can’t see them.) The answer is probably verging on zero. Frankly, most of us have no idea what can and can’t be done when it comes to our data and these kinds of experiments.
Unsurprisingly, Facebook claims that everything that was done was completely legal (and it probably was). But that doesn’t change the fact that the whole notion of being used for an experiment is off-putting.
In hindsight, Facebook probably should have nixed this experiment. They didn’t gain much from it and are facing a backlash much more severe than the benefits the findings might have provided. But on the user front, we need to ground ourselves in the reality of the situation.
As businesses, these social networks are going to do what they can to grow and capitalize on the infinite amounts of information they have at their avail (in the most legal way possible). When we check that little box, we’re telling them that we understand all of this and that we accept it.
South Park Human CentiPad Screenshot taken August 1, 2014.
It might still upset us when we find out that they have actually done something with it (thinking back to that episode of South Park with the Human CentiPad) but we can’t levy all of the blame on the shoulders of these giants.
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