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The Facebook Furor

AMSTERDAM – There has been a lot of fuss lately about the psychological experiment that Facebook conducted on nearly 700,000 of its users. In order to gauge how people’s Facebook “News Feeds” affect their moods, the company temporarily implemented a new algorithm to display slightly more positive messages to some users, and slightly gloomier ones to others. As it turns out, people’s posts shifted to reflect the tone of their friends’ posts.

But the furor missed some of the most interesting questions, focusing (as usual) on Facebook’s tone-deafness (as usual). Nobody seemed interested in the obvious question of whether the findings reflected a genuine shift in mood, or simply a desire – conscious or unconscious – to fit in.

What has people outraged is the notion that Facebook is manipulating its unwitting users to advance its own agenda, with many citing the secrecy surrounding the research to illustrate the company’s misconduct (though the company published the results with no apparent sense of unease). But, though Facebook’s lack of transparency is certainly disconcerting – as is its deafness to its users’ concerns – these complaints miss the point.

Of course Facebook is manipulating its users – just like all companies that use advertising to induce consumers to crave a double cheeseburger, a sexy dress, or a sexy partner. Whether it is done through targeted advertisements based on a search history or billboards on a public highway, the (intended) result is the same.

A century ago, this might have been big news. Today, it is mundane. Yet people continue to react to explicit revelations of such manipulation with shock and outrage.

The bigger problem is the modern paradox of choice. Today, people are constantly presented with choices – and also with the option to avoid them, under the guise of speed or convenience.

While the power to make one’s own choices is appealing in theory, the sheer number of options can be exhausting and disorienting – not least because of the pressure to make the “right” choice. As Barry Schwartz has pointed out, choices are an opportunity for regret. When forces beyond our control make us unhappy, at least we do not feel angry with ourselves for putting ourselves in that position.

The logical response to this pressure is to delegate some decisions to others. But, when reminded of how others are shaping our lives, we become indignant, calling it “creepy” and a violation of our free will. Users let Google filter the deluge of emails they receive daily, but they are incensed when Google weeds out an important message.

Likewise, when Facebook responds to complaints that users cannot keep track of all of their friends’ posts, it develops an algorithm to show users only the most relevant. But what qualifies a post as “relevant”? Twitter is now trying to solve the same problem.

Some have said that the choices that Facebook makes for its users could endanger its users’ mental health. But so can an overworked high-school teacher who cannot dedicate the needed energy to troubled students; magazines that promote unrealistic body images; sermons from clergy who believe that God does not forgive everyone; or even a stranger acting rudely on a train. All of these actors have their own ideas and motivations, and they are all manipulating our perspectives – and our moods – every day.

Of course, with advertising, the manipulation is particularly overt. But marketers also regularly test users’ emotional reactions to less explicit aspects of their products, from the color of their packaging or their placement in the store to their celebrity spokesperson. And they lure consumers into paying more by offering an over-priced option that makes anything less expensive seem reasonable.

Reading about Kim Kardashian’s new dress may make you want to buy the dress, but does it also make you feel ugly? If you’re a tech entrepreneur, you may aspire to be Marc Andreessen, but reading about him may also make you feel inadequate – especially if you are female.

Facebook inadvertently raised this issue of emotional manipulation and unintended consequences indirectly and in one context, by being secretive about its research and not giving people the chance to opt out beforehand. (Now, that would have been a smart choice!)

But, in the end, there is no problem to be solved – or even an issue that concerns Facebook in particular. What we are seeing is a fundamental improvement in our ability to discover the short-term and long-term impact of our actions and those of others. (Global warming, anyone?) As our ability to measure things and detect the impact of any change improves – in short, as we get better at empirical research – we need to consider what kind of responsibility is entailed by the knowledge that we gain.