Mad Science: Facebook’s Mood Experiment

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Save for the World Cup, news stories this summer have been sort of slow. Yet, social media giant Facebook has already made news twice.

First, in mid-June, The New York Times reported that the social media giant would allow users to alter their ad profiles to give all 1.3 billion of them greater control over their privacy.

Then in late-June, news of a so-called “Facebook experiment,” which already sounds creepy, proved to capture the public’s attention as it became a news story for several days. In case you missed it,  here’s the skinny:

  • The psychological experiment was conducted in 2012.
  • 700,000 Facebook users served as the experiment “subjects.”
  • The experiment sought to alter the subject’s mood by manipulating their News Feed with posts that were either disproportionately positive or negative.
  • As hypothesized, users who saw positive news were more likely to write their own positive posts, and vice versa.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was forced to apologize for what she thought was routine and benign yet “poorly communicated.” Days later, U.S. Senator Mark R. Warner (D-VA) sent an open letter to Federal Trade Commission Chair — Los Angeles-native — Edith Ramirez to “fully explore the potential ramifications of the behavioral experiment performed by Facebook.” See the letter here.

To many who follow social media, this wasn’t news. Facebook, with servers around the world in facilities twice the size of football fields that process 500 terabytes of data on a daily basis, rakes in billions by packing all that user-generated data into hyper-targeted ads for retailers and consumer goods companies and anyone else trying to reach a narrowly defined audience. (In Q1 2014, $FB reported $2.5B in revenue.)

Is your perfect customer college-educated women, between the ages of 29 and 44, with one child who is pre-K or younger, speaks Spanish, uses an iPad, and lives in zip code 91316? No prob. For the cost of dinner at CPK, you can reach them on Facebook.

Looking for Baby Boomers who are divorced, into guns, commute more than 20 miles for work, have grandchildren out-of-state, use an old computer, and live within 5 miles from the Rose Bowl? Yep, Facebook has got you covered.

Presumably, this scary-accurate demographic data coupled with the manipulation of moods would be a means to selling more home security systems and flower bouquets. Here’s our advice: Don’t freak out.  Rather, use this information to make wiser decisions about what you share and don’t share on social media.

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