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Cast your mind back ten years to 2004. The first iPhone was still a few years away; Gmail was the new big thing in ...
Cast your mind back ten years to 2004. The first iPhone was still a few years away; Gmail was the new big thing in technology, and if someone bought a tablet it was to get rid of a headache and not to browse the Web.
Facebook was something you would have heard of only if you were a Harvard University student and thus eligible for membership to the site. It would be two more years before Facebook was available to the public.
In 2014, Facebook now has over 1.25 billion active users, and actively engages in performing psychological experiments on some of them whilst working within their established terms and conditions.
You read that correctly. Recent news reports have revealed that Facebook “experimented on” around 700,000 users by playing around with the content of their newsfeeds back in 2012.
Facebook tweaked their algorithm to fill some users feeds with primarily negative posts. They then studied the Facebook activity of the test subjects to see if this negativity had an impact on their state of mind.
It did. The results of the study showed that those subjected to more negativity were more likely to express negativity themselves. If you consider this to be a rather cruel trick to play, you’re not alone.
Facebook has defended the study and made the expected proclamations that nobody’s personal data was compromised. Playing around with people’s emotional states is pretty sinister stuff, though, however you spin it.
From a technical point of view, the news of the study leads one to think about how Facebook’s newsfeed has evolved over time. The changes have been subtle and gradual, but cumulatively they make the newsfeed of five years ago unrecognizable compared to the newsfeed of today.
In a direct comparison, you would notice far more corporate posts mixed in with updates from your friends in today’s feed. This won’t surprise any realist, as Facebook clearly needs to make some money from the platform.
If you administer a business Facebook page, you will understand the basic mechanics of this, too. It’s a simple matter of paying to “boost” the reach of your page or posts. Anyone can influence newsfeeds if they’re prepared to pay.
Many people yearn for the days when their newsfeed was a simple, time-ordered list of things they wanted to see. For better or worse, what we see now is what Facebook, and their paying clients (the advertisers), want us to see.
Perhaps the most shocking part of story, is how much Facebook’s users are willing to put up with. Last year’s privacy revelations didn’t force people to desert the social network in droves, even if some of us did start thinking a bit longer before sharing information. One would think that large-scale “big brother”-style social experiments would creep people out, but it seems that most value the ability to connect with friends online enough to overlook any sinister downside.
And with that in mind, we can only wonder what they’ll try out on us next.