updated 06:58 pm EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
Coauthor says benefits of research may not have been worth the backlash
Adam Kramer, co-author of the paper involving Facebook news feed manipulation, took to the social media service to explain the importance of the study earlier this week. Since news of the psychological study hit the Internet, many have wondered about the ethical implications of emotional manipulation by the company. Kramer indicated that the researchers didn't clearly state their motivations in the paper, leading to a misinterpretation of how the study was perceived.
The study, which occurred over a one week period in 2012, used an algorithm to filter out information on news feeds of 689,000 English-language accounts. The purpose of the study on emotional states, which was carried out unbeknownst to the users, reduced the number of positive or negative words to see if emotional contagion could occur without face to face interaction and nonverbal cues. It proved that text read on the Internet could influence emotions, based on the type of words used after being exposed to feed that leaned toward one emotional state.
"The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product," said Kramer. "We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends' negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook."
Kramer further explains how the research was carried out, explaining that only a small amount of content was deprioritized on news feeds, based only on the emotional word content. He reiterates that the items pulled weren't hidden or removed, but merely excluded on feeds. As it stated in the paper, the items could still be found on the friends' timelines.
Playing up the numbers aspect, he states that the number of people impacted by the study is only a small amount. In fact, it was so small that it "was the minimal amount to statistically detect it." Those in the study produced, on average, one or fewer words per 1,000 counted.
It appears that while the study may have been done under good intentions, the backlash make it more trouble that it is worth. Kramer said that he understands why people would be upset, even if the intent was never to do so.
"In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety," said Kramer.
Since the study took place, Facebook researchers have worked on improving internal review practices. Kramer said what was learned from the reaction to the emotional study will be incorporated.