My first reaction when I heard of the Facebook mood study (PDF) was that it’s totally unethical and it’s going to set Facebook back a ways. I couldn’t figure out why Facebook couldn’t see it that way and wasn’t responding accordingly.

In a nutshell, the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and conducted by Facebook researcher Adam Kramer, Jeffrey Hancock of Cornell University, and Jamie Guillory of the University of California at San Francisco, revealed that Facebook had manipulated it’s Newsfeed in order to gauge how users’ moods and subsequent posts were affected.

After realizing that advertisers and marketers test our moods in response to color, sounds, pictures, and more each and every day — and that it’s been common practice for decades — I see Facebook as no better nor worse…

Andrew Ledvina (@wolfgangFabian), a data scientist at Facebook from early 2012 to the summer of 2013, can’t figure out what all the fuss is about over the recent mood manipulation study.

“The fundamental purpose of most people at Facebook working on data is to influence and alter people’s moods and behaviour. They are doing it all the time to make you like stories more, to click on more ads, to spend more time on the site. This is just how a website works, everyone does this and everyone knows that everyone does this, I don’t see why people are all up in arms over this thing all of a sudden.”

Rather than a sinister motive, Facebook is trying to do good, per Ledvina.

“Every data scientist at Facebook that I have ever interacted with has been deeply passionate about making the lives of people using Facebook better…”

Medical ethicist Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin’s Law School told Kashmir Hill (@kashhill), writing for Forbes, that she thinks the outcry over the Facebook study is overblown.

“As a business practice, companies do research on consumer behavior all the time. Which colors work? Should a mailer start with happy story about candidate or an attack on competitor? This is not novel and not limited to Facebook. I think there’s a larger question about how much individualized information we have around each person. As a matter of ethics, it’s not at all hard for a company to simply announce, ‘We constantly test our business practices, let us know if you never want to be part of that.'”

There’s no question that with technology, big data, and hyper-personalization there is risk in this sort of testing and what can be done via the results.

From Harvard Professor and Princeton Fellow, Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep):

“[I]t 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.”

I like Facebook. I use it regularly for social and business engagement. I am not aware of anything in my lifetime that has connected people in such a positive way.

I like Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of making the Internet available to everyone in the world. I agree with Zuckerberg that connecting everyone on the web can create opportunity and reduce poverty.

Could this all be a facade, with Zuckerberg’s goal since the days of his Harvard dorm room to violate privacy, conduct experiments on us, and engineer our everyday activity?

Sure, it’s a possibility. I’m just not betting on it. I don’t think you ought to either. There is too much to be gained from the personal and business use of Facebook to place fear first.

Will there be ongoing experiments by Facebook and others? Certainly.

From Ledvina:

“The only thing I see changing from this is not whether similar experiments will be run, but rather [whether they will] be published. Similar experiments have been and will continue to be run, but you probably just won’t see a paper about it anymore.”

The benefits of broader connections, engagement, learning, and collaboration to each of us and society outweigh my fears.


Kevin O’Keefe (@kevinokeefe) is the CEO and founder of LexBlog, which empowers lawyers to increase their visibility and accelerate business relationships online. You can With LexBlog’s help, legal professionals use their subject matter expertise to drive powerful business development through blogging and social media. Visit LexBlog.com.

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