In The Cage With Facebook Lab Rats

Some people are very upset that Facebook has admitted conducting a psychological experiment on hundreds of thousands of randomly selected users.

In the 2012 study, Facebook data scientists decided to test the hypothesis that reading about the great things “Facebook friends” are writing about their lives depresses readers, who feel that their lives kind of suck by comparison.  So, for one week, the data scientists used an algorithm on the Facebook news feeds of almost 700,000 people to delete posts with words associated with positive, or negative, emotions to see whether it affected the kinds of posts those readers made.  The study ultimately refuted that hypothesis.

A number of people feel that the experiment treated Facebook users as guinea pigs, improperly tried to manipulate their emotions, and was unethical.  I can understand the sentiment, but I think we all need to accept that we are lab rats in a vast media stew in which the overriding goal is to manipulate our emotions and perceptions — whether the active agent is a Facebook post, an email designed to provoke us to make a contribution to a political candidate, or a banner ad that touts the miracle weight-loss qualities of a previously unknown plant.  Face it, folks — it’s all just part of navigating through our media-saturated modern culture.

Knowing about Facebook’s willingness to conduct broad-scale psychological and social experiments has its positive aspects, too — it helps to explain certain otherwise inexplicable realities of Facebook.  From my occasional review of my “news feed,” I’m guessing that Facebook is currently conducting tests on these other hypotheses:

*  What is more likely to cause “de-friending”:  incessant requests to play Facebook games or posting memes that express rote sentiments and demand “click like if you agree!”?

*  Are conservatives or liberals more likely to post ludicrously overheated, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it reactions to current events?

*  Is there any location on a Facebook page where ads can be placed that readers will not be able to successfully ignore them?

*  Does the frequency of posts with pictures of food increase as Facebook users age?

That Morning Email Fix

For nearly 50 years I lived comfortably without a mobile phone.  I could go out to eat without needing to check constantly on social media, see whether I’d received a text, or take a photo of my food and post it somewhere immediately.  Now I seem to be as addicted to my handheld device as a heroin addict is to his daily fix.

IMG_6119I check my email first thing in the morning, check it routinely throughout the day, and typically do so again the last thing before I head upstairs for bed at night.  I am in a business where client service is crucially important and I want to be promptly responsive to any messages from those clients — but I know that is, in part, just a rationalization.  If I check my phone for email, I can get back to my clients in impressive time and always will seem to be in touch — but I’ll also see whether any other messages are waiting for me.

Why is this so?  I think it’s driven in part by ego and in part by the natural curiosity of the human brain.  We want to know if people are responding to us or thinking of us, and we are easily bored.  Rather than just take a walk down the street, why not check in on Facebook, too?  I suppose there’s no significant harm in missing the simple pleasures of a walk that you’ve taken many times — only to get another message that you’ve been invited to play some unknown Facebook game — but when referring to your handheld begins to interfere with actually living your life it seems like it’s time to reconsider what you’re doing.

I thought of this increasingly during our trip to New Orleans, when I encountered people who seemed to be focused on tapping things into their handheld to the exclusion of everything else — even if it meant stumbling into people on the street because they weren’t paying attention to where they were going.  The point was driven home when Richard, Russell, UJ and I were sitting on the second story balcony of a place on Frenchmen Street, enjoying a beer and the view, and we noticed a group of 10 or so young women who appeared to be part of a wedding party at the next table over.  Virtually all of them had their eyes locked on their phones and their thumbs flying.  They weren’t really in New Orleans, they were in cyberworld — so why physically be in New Orleans in the first place?

It was sad, and I’m embarrassed to say that I’m not much better.  I like blogging and feeling like I’m connected, but I need to make sure that I’ve worked out an appropriate balance between the real world and the virtual one.

Twitter Turnabout

Twitter is a good example of a double-edged sword.  When companies or entities try to use it for positive PR purposes, as often as not it backfires, and what is generated instead is embarrassing and often humorous.

As a very recent example, consider the New York City Police Department.  Some genius decided it would be helpful to ask people to tweet their pictures with members of the police force with the hashtag #myNYPD.  Clearly, the Department envisioned smiling photos of citizens and friendly, blue-coated officers.

But what actually happened didn’t go according to that plan.  Instead, people started tweeting photos of police officers handcuffing suspects, lashing out with batons, and otherwise engaging in less positive interactions with members of the public.  Other tweets identified people who had been shot to death by police and complaining about police brutality — as well as ripping the NYPD for a self-inflicted PR disaster.

The NYPD example probably should be taught in PR classes about use of social media.  What are the key elements of this colossal blunder?  One is a person or entity who lacks significant awareness of how they are actually perceived by the public and therefore can’t envision the negative tweets that their campaign might generate.  It’s hard to imagine that any police department would be blind to the fact that they aren’t adored by a significant percentage of the public — after all, the police regularly issue tickets, order people around, and arrest and apprehend suspects who proclaim their innocence, and those people have families and friends — but the NYPD apparently falls into that category. That’s amazing, and suggests that the PR decisionmakers aren’t adequately acquainted with reality.

A second element is a lack of understanding of human nature.  People who are angry and negative are far more motivated to post something than people who are happy and positive.  Tourists who were helped by members of the NYPD aren’t likely to take a photo or be aware of a Twitter campaign about the NYPD — but somebody who is convinced that the cops routinely engage in racial profiling will be monitoring and ready to spring when an ill-advised campaign gets underway.

If I were a company or a public entity, I’d be very cautious about inviting Twitter chatter.  Our grandmothers told us, “be careful what you ask for” — and that was wise advice,

Facebook And The Arc Of Coolness

There’s been lots of chatter lately about the future of Facebook. Millions of teenage users apparently are no longer using the social media network. Some Princeton researchers have concluded that social networks are like communicable diseases that infect people rapidly then just was quickly burn out; they predict Facebook will lose 80 percent of its peak user base by the 2015-2017 time period.

There’s no doubt that Facebook is not as cool as it once was, but that result always was inevitable — because nothing stays ubercool for long. The equation of coolness is simple: young people add to coolness, and old people who aren’t rock stars detract from it. Once Moms and Dads and people in their 60s started to use Facebook to post boring pictures, send inspirational messages, and attempt to make “hip” comments about their kids’ drunken selfies, any self-respecting youngster would realize that the coolness luster was gone . . . and move on to the next big thing.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook is doomed. My guess is that Facebook wants to end up as a kind of utility — that is, an invention that initially is cutting-edge and used by only a few people and later becomes so broadly accepted that it is unconsciously integrated into everyone’s daily life, like the electric light or the telephone. iPads might not be as cool as they once were, but does Apple care if they are being sold by the millions to uncool people in the business community who love the idea of a lightweight device that they can customize to meet their unique business and personal requirements?

The key for Facebook, or for that matter any other form of social media, is whether it can make that transition. If Facebook sticks around and keeps that critical mass of users, will those coolness-sensitive teens return to the Facebook fold when they hit their late 20s and realize that the social media network is a really handy, one-stop place to keep in contact with high school buddies, college friends, and former co-workers, remember their birthdays, and have some sense of what they are doing with their lives?

Line-Drawing And Violent Content

If you establish a social media site, and allow the world at large to join and post, you’re running a risk.  Some people will post pictures of kittens, old family photos, or corny but uplifting messages.  Others, however, may want to post other things — things that are disturbing.  So you establish a content policy — but where do you draw the line?  That’s an issue that Facebook is wrestling with these days.

IMG_5117Facebook has an extensive set of “community standards” that address topics like “nudity and pornography,” “violence and threats,” and “hate speech.”  One topic is “graphic content.”  As Facebook puts it, people use the site to share their experiences and thoughts about issues, some of which “involve graphic content that is of public interest or concern, such as human rights abuses or acts of terrorism.”  Facebook distinguishes between sharing such content for purposes of condemnation and sharing “to celebrate or glorify violence.”  Facebook asks users to share content “in a responsible manner” and warn the audience about any graphic video.  If Facebookers report that certain content violates the community standards, Facebook decides whether to remove it. 

The most recent controversy involves a video showing a woman being decapitated.  The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and others criticized Facebook for not removing the video and for apparently loosening its standards on hyper-violent postings.  Facebook reacted to the criticism, removed the video after determining it improperly and irresponsibly glorifies violence, and issued a “fact check” statement to explain its new approach and its decision.  

It’s the right decision, of course — but it shouldn’t have been a hard decision to make in the first place.  There is a big difference between disturbing images of starving children that sharpen an appeal for contributions to a hunger relief charity and a video of a planned execution by beheading.  Line-drawing can be tough, but I would certainly draw the line so that videos showing real people actually being killed, tortured, or horribly injured are excluded, whether their accompanying text purportedly “condemns” such action or not.

Mean Girls

There’s been a lot of talk about “mean girls” and bullying lately.  The terrible suicide  of a 12-year-old Florida girl, who jumped off a tower after being tormented by schoolmates, is just the latest in a series of incidents that have people questioning whether young girls — and for that matter, young boys — are just getting meaner.

Some of the prevailing wisdom is that the internet, and social media, have contributed to the relentless bullying.  The notion is that what used to be one-on-one bullying can quickly become a much wider form of inflicting humiliation.  Rather than just mortifying someone on the school bus or in the gym class locker, the thinking goes, social media allows the bullies to broadcast and heighten their taunts and attempts to shame and ridicule to the point where the object of the bullying feels that death is their only escape.  The youthful targets doesn’t quite realize that their teenage years will pass, that the school year embarrassments will fade into distant memories, and that the jerk who is torturing them doesn’t represent what lies ahead.

I think social media is a big part of the problem — but also for a different reason.  It’s harder to be mean to someone to their face.  When you are posting something insulting or humiliating about someone on Facebook, you’re typing something into a computer.  When you’re texting a mean picture, you’re thumbing a message into a smartphone.  It’s all an abstraction, where the power trip can be taken without directly experiencing the reaction.  You don’t see the hurt that your words or actions inflict; instead, you just get a few LOLs from the sycophantic friends in your clique.

I’m convinced that only truly evil people would be capable of tormenting someone, in person, to the point of suicide.  If I’m wrong about that, and we actually are raising a generation of kids so malevolent and disconnected from human decency that they don’t care about the consequences of their mean-spirited actions, then we’ve got much bigger problems as a society.

Anti-Social Media

Does social media make people ruder?  One survey says that is the case.  More than 75 percent of the people surveyed say they think people are more likely to be insulting on-line, and almost 20 percent say they have seen people end their “real” relationships after a social media spat.

I don’t know how scientific the survey is, but the results really shouldn’t surprise anyone.  Incivility increases with each step we take that is farther away from face-to-face interaction.  That is because it is not easy to be hurtful and insulting to someone’s face.  You see their reaction, physically, and you think that you wouldn’t want someone to say something mean to your face, either.  The natural tendency therefore is to tone down the rhetoric.  It’s somewhat easier to be rude over the phone, but even then you can hear the hurt in the other party’s voice.

But as you move away from immediate, personal contact, the visual and verbal cues that encourage civil behavior vanish.  Any employment lawyer or HR manager will tell you, with a shake of their head, that people write incredibly harsh, stupid, and ill-advised things in email messages, and the same is true of social media.  People act in the heat of the moment, without reflection or any brake on their offensive impulses, thinking they are being clever when they are really just being crass.  Discourtesy and angry reactions are the inevitable results.

Social media has a lot of advantages as a means of keeping in touch with people, but it also provides a ready mechanism for thoughtlessness on a large scale.  We’d all be better served if we paused before hitting the “post” button and considered how wounding our words might be.