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.