I Feel (X) When You Say (Y)

If I say “I love you,” or say “you’re nice,” do you feel happy?
If I say “you’re ugly,” or say “this cake you made me is nasty,” do you feel sad?

If so, you have been emotionally manipulated.

The words “love, nice, sweet,” (positive) and “hurt, ugly, nasty” (negative) were, far as I can tell, the indicator words Facebook used in its “emotional contagion” study that caused OUTRAGE when it was revealed at the end of June (guessing the terms based on this table, the database that the study’s abstract says was used).

For this study, if you’ve forgotten, Facebook messed with the algorithm that decides what’s in users’ NewsFeeds to see how they reacted when a bunch of “positive” or “negative” posts showed up in front of their faces. Would they post more good or bad posts?

People were not happy when they found out they had been studied in this way; Facebook had abused their trust, they said. This is some seriously unethical research, researchers said. From this reaction, there was the inevitable re-reaction: The commentariat pointed out that businesses conduct these experiments all the time without any scrutiny whatsoever – aren’t you glad Facebook told you this time? Plus, don’t you know advertising is trying to change your mind all the time?

Read about Facebook, its NewsFeed, and how businesses attempt to make money off the network for five minutes and it’s obvious that manipulation, both by Facebook and of Facebook, is all that happens in InternetLand. Facebook wants what the user sees to be engaging, meaning, in this day, that the user should click on as many posts as possible. The “most recent posts” feed is not really that; if the Algorithm has decided the Facebooker doesn’t “engage” with a certain type of post, said Facebooker will not see that post. (This is why my many posts of writings I’ve put work into get a like or two, and a silly profile picture will get a dozen: people do not “engage” with reading anymore, at least little that I write).

Unlike those that show the beginnings of cakes or candy, How Facebook Is Made is not yet a show filling up hours on basic cable. Most folks don’t care all that much about the workings behind the screen; their kids or grandkids or dogs are on and post things that make them feel connected to those beings, and so they get on Facebook. For this group, hearing about Facebook messing around with what they see makes them feel like their social experience is being counterfeited, that someone’s impersonating a friend through the mail. Or pushing false advertising, whatever that means anymore. It’s just wrong.

Hullabaloos over stories like the survey are useful to remind us that most people don’t often step back and say “well, yes, there are outside forces working to change my mind right now and I should be aware of them.” Lots of people make money by telling other people they are capable of Taking Control (of one’s weight, finances, psyche, career). That so many people pay for these pep talks says that making conscious choices still isn’t a favorite pastime of many humans.

There is the assumption, by those who think deeply about these things, that manipulation is something that the Viewing Public cannot avoid. For example:

Today, more and more, not only can corporations target you directly, they can model you directly and stealthily. They can figure out answers to questions they have never posed to you, and answers that you do not have any idea they have. Modeling means having answers without making it known you are asking, or having the target know that you know. This is a great information asymmetry, and combined with the behavioral applied science used increasingly by industry, political campaigns and corporations, and the ability to easily conduct random experiments (the A/B test of the said Facebook paper), it is clear that the powerful have increasingly more ways to engineer the public, and this is true for Facebook, this is true for presidential campaigns, this is true for other large actors: big corporations and governments.

(emphasis added)

Or consider this quote in the New York Times (which has the luxury of taking five weeks to write about the hullabaloo) from a MIT management professor:

We need to understand how to think about these rules without chilling the research that has the promise of moving us miles and miles ahead of where we are today in understanding human populations …

Speaking of populations, the public, the masses: these words remind us that we can only be our own free selves if our actions are not actually determined by all of this modeling and engineering. If one is not predictable, one cannot be predicted. Although that “engineering,” that “understanding human populations,” is still a whole bunch of guesswork even in an age of Big Data, one can only hope we won’t get to a point where the Algorithm is all-determining of what is on our mind.

The word “hullabaloo” was on my mind from this article on “Blazing Publicity” written by Walter Lippman in 1927, and published in a Vanity Fair best-of:

The public interest works somewhat mysteriously, and those of us who serve it as scouts or otherwise have no very clear conception as to just what will go down and what won’t. We know that the best sensations involve some mystery, as well as love and death, but in fact we work on intuitions and by trial and error …
We do not, for example, know how to imagine what the consequences will be of attempting to conduct popular government with an electorate which is subjected to a series of disconnected, but in all their moments absolutely absorbing, hullabaloos …
The human mind is not prophetic enough to pursue the problem and solve it theoretically in advance. There is no use grumbling then about the character of some of our hullabaloos. They should be regarded frankly as experiments …
The philosophy which inspires the whole process is based on the theory, which is no doubt correct, that a great population under modern conditions is not held by sustained convictions and traditions, but that it wants and must have one thrill after another.

Whether we decide to take the thrill-ride, every day, remains our decision. For now.

Data Is Not Mine, Nor Is It Me

“Let me trade you two status updates for a retweet.”

“I’ll share three posts of yours for a half dozen likes.”

These are not conversations that occur in reality, at least from what I’ve heard eavesdropping in the street. The Kids are not yet swapping mentions on social media like their ancestors traded marbles or baseball cards.

This is because tweets, posts, updates, and hashtags are not things that can be held onto and owned. A Facebook update might become a conversation that spans a few days in the comments. Only those trading in digital popularity conserve their posts as valued possessions that can be seen, worn, bartered, used for personal gain. The only value digital archives have for most of us is personal, sentimental. They serve as a haphazard diary.

An update brings shock or regret: “I can’t believe Joey married him.” And then a night is wasted analyzing Instant Messenger conversations during the first semester of college, when everything fell apart.

Social media is billed as an ongoing conversation. Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to connect the world. On Twitter, one can have a feud, praise a salad, make a joke, and bring shame upon someone of whom you disapprove. Yet we also want some parts of ourselves put online to be our private property, like a box of embarrassing notes from high school kept in an attic. Conversations in a chat window should be private, so we think; so should pictures we wouldn’t want our parents to see. Then credit card data or naughty pictures are hacked, stolen, and spread about for public consumption, and everyone must remember nothing put online is private. The told-you-so tech writers will remind everyone about this basic fact again the next time “our data” is stolen by an attack of the Russian hacker hordes.

There’s the reality of Online Life: everything put “out there” is subject to possible manipulation by others. Castle walls couldn’t survive cannonballs; no online security system can possibly keep up with the hackers’ newest offensive weaponry. One’s only defense is staying inconspicuous: if you have little money, you can’t lose much; stay an obscure citizen and it’s unlikely that your naked pictures will circulate the Internet with your name attached.

Someday, maybe the insecurities of living online will make folks realize that nothing we call “data” is ever really “ours.” Pictures, account numbers, posts and tweets and bodily dimensions: they are all abstracted bits of information that cannot be mistaken for one’s own self, for any specific person.

So-called identities, even, have nothing to do with any one human being – it is a person who makes things and experiences the world. There is no “straight white Protestant male” way in which one experiences the world. For any one person, cultural markers certainly can affect what parts of the world may be experienced. Affiliating with any one identity has nothing to do with the experiencing self though, the essential person that acts and thinks – whether red, yellow, purple, or white.

If data determines what you do, you are not free. If our “self-image” is simply derived from the image we promote on Facebook, from the success of our “personal brand,” a product of photo shoots and status updates… your action is determined from somewhere other than yourself, and there’s no freedom in that.

Take a tour of a region where many Amish live, and the guide will invariably tell you that you should not snap pictures of the Plain People. It’s said by the guides that they believe pictures capture the soul. Whether the Amish believe this or not (and it is a belief held by other cultures around the world), the guides may be onto something: if someone’s soul can be summed up in one single photograph, s/he is truly a captive of something so simple as a picture.