In mid-June, this article was published detailing the data of a psychological study conducted by Facebook. The kicker is that the participants in Facebook’s study had no idea they were participating. I will not be the first nor the last to point out that any legitimate psychological study that takes place presently must be approved by an IRB, and this approval hinges on informed consent and the participant’s ability to leave the study at any given point without any negative consequences. Facebook did not obtain informed consent from the users in the study, and it skirts the legalities of this issue with the blanket of their user agreements and claims such as “[t]he reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product,” (qtd. in Goel). Facebook is notorious for changing their product without warning, and often to the dismay of its users (how often do you see someone on Facebook complaining about their newsfeed, especially when Facebook attempts to force them to use the “Top Stories” feature). But, as always, Facebook claims it’s for the good of their users– whether their users like it or not.
Truthfully is anyone surprised that emotions transfer on social media? I think that this study was not only unethical, but unnecessary. In the article, Kramer et al state:
Emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading them to experience the same emotions as those around them. Emotional contagion is well established in laboratory experiments (1), in which people transfer positive and negative moods and emotions to others. Similarly, data from a large, real-world social network collected over a 20-y period suggests that longer-lasting moods (e.g., depression, happiness) can be transferred through networks as well (2, 3). (8788)
The Facebook researchers were curious if emotional states transfer in social media as they do in real-world situations. There are many studies that point out how people act in online environments is nearly identical to the way people act in face-to-face situations. For example, many people are concerned about self misrepresentation online and on social media. While this is a thing that may happen occasionally, researcher Nancy Baym finds that “reduced social cues make it easier to lie, but separation, time lags, and sparse cues also remove social pressures that make lying seem a good idea” (116). A study of online environments by Yee et al. find that even when people are represented by digital avatars, they “are governed by the same social norms as social interactions in the physical world” (119).
Some light reading would have lead even the Facebook researchers to similar conclusions. But, they conducted their study in any case. And they are allowed to do so with relatively small consequences. The public is upset, and news sources are writing about them, but are there any real consequences for Facebook’s shady actions? The short answer is no, not really. While this is problematic, I think the better question is why there aren’t any real consequences? The simple answer is that Facebook has a monopoly on social media. Yes, there are other social media outlets such as Twitter and Instagram, but Facebook is the biggest and most useful for maintaining social connections. It’s easier to track and have a conversation on Facebook, whether it’s about a cute cat video, a celeb, or the latest political snafu. It allows users to create events that track attendees and allow for real-time updates about things as simple as food and drink or venue change. There are chat functions and picture sharing. The only thing that was comparable to Facebook in function and popularity was MySpace, and we all know what happened to MySpace. Google also attempted to create a similar network: Google+. That also didn’t get off the ground. They couldn’t even force people to like Google+ (although to be clear, you still must have a Google+ account to comment on YouTube videos).
No, Facebook can do almost whatever it wants because, in the end, people will still use it. This in turn means that advertisers will also still find it profitable. Facebook still provides a valuable and unique service, no matter how unethically it treats its users. Until there is a viable alternative, Facebook will continue to do as it pleases with its product and its users’ information, and there’s not much we can do about it.
P.S. Like my page on Facebook (see what I did there?).