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When researchers from Facebook and Cornell University published their findings on emotional contagion among Facebook users (PDF) last month, they did so in the matter-of-fact language of social scientists: “The experiment manipulated the extent to which people were exposed to emotional expressions in their News Feed.” The Internet was beside itself. Critics blasted the study as irresponsible, unethical and creepy. Users, after all, didn’t know their moods were being influenced by selected content. Moreover, how could the scientists appear so cavalier about their methodological ethics?
Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer, one of the authors of the study, responded, “The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product.” What they found was that happier posts lead to more engagement — sadder posts, less. The optimization argument is similar to another announcement Facebook made last month (to much less grumbling) that it would begin mining users’ browsing histories for the sake of “making ads better and giving people more control over the ads they see.” The two announcements, while triggering vastly different responses, speak to the same corporate logic that is concerned with how user engagement affects profit margins.
The problem with the emotional contagion study, in other words, wasn’t that Facebook was doing something different but rather that it made it impossible for us to forget what we tacitly acknowledge each time we log on: Our feelings, relationships and personal preferences make Facebook money.
Each time we use Facebook, we perform labor, which is to say that we create value. There is no material product, but what we do produces cultural knowledge, shapes opinion and ultimately directs the flow of capital. Facebook has taken our relationships with one another and monetized it, turning our interactions into advertising opportunities. It relies on us to provide content, in the form of videos we shoot, articles we like, screeds we write, places where we check in and comments we post. Without our labor, it has no value; nor would it make any money (hence why Facebook includes the number of new and active users in each quarterly report). Which leads to the great deception of Web 2.0: We aren’t Facebook’s clients; corporations are. [continue reading E. Alex Jung’s article in Aljazeera America]
Here’s the scholarly paper on which this article is based: “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks” by Adam D. I. Kramera, Jamie E. Guillory, and Jeffrey T. Hancock.