Let's Experiment On Facebook - InformationWeek

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7/3/2014
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Let's Experiment On Facebook

Facebook angered lots of people with its experiments to manipulate users' moods. What might happen if 800 million users decide to return the favor?

Facebook recently caught some flack when an academic study detailed experiments to manipulate its users’ emotional states. We can argue about the ethical and behavioral implications of Facebook treating its users like lab rats, but I think a better response would be to return the favor.

With approximately 802 million daily active users, there’s enough of us to turn the tables and start experimenting on Facebook. Here’s a few suggestions.

Individualized Emotional Contagion

The researchers found evidence that “emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion.” The initial study comprised 689,003 subjects.

An interesting follow-up would be to measure emotional transference on a single individual. Will Mark Zuckerberg experience “emotional contagion” if 689,003 people post rude things about him on Facebook every day for a week?

As a user of the site, Mr. Zuckerberg has agreed to the terms of service that allow him to be the subject of Facebook research, so I think we’re ethically in the clear here.

Garbage In…

Facebook is built on ads. And it can charge a premium to advertisers because it gathers and analyzes data about users. This means advertisers can craft their ads to, as Facebook says, “deliver beautiful, relevant messages that help drive key business results.”

But what if the information that Facebook gathers is wrong? What would happen, for instance, if millions of people changed their birthdate to, say, July 15, 1929? Will marketers targeting the 75-to-85 year old demographic start flooding Facebook with ads for walk-in tubs and denture creams? And how long would it take for those advertisers to realize how utterly ineffective those ads are?

Bear Market

We don’t have to limit our experiments to social sciences. There are lots of interesting research avenues in fields such as economics. For instance, what effect would it have on Facebook’s stock price if large numbers of people quit the site for something like SnapChat?

What’s cool about this experiment is that you could also tie it back into the emotional contagion experiments, as shareholders spread feelings of angst and despair amongst themselves. That’s a research win-win.

Drew is formerly editor of Network Computing and currently director of content and community for Interop. View Full Bio
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