Facebook and empathy


You may have seen this story, which I think is one of the biggest social media related news stories there has ever been. It has always been the case, on the internet, that if something is free, then you are the product.

It has also always been the case that Facebook’s business model relies on its users not changing the default privacy settings. In order to facilitate this, Facebook changes the privacy settings on a frequent basis. This keeps people on their toes, and each time encourages a certain number of people to give up trying to maintain a high level of privacy.

Thirdly, it has always been the case, with Facebook as with iTunes, as with Twitter, that nobody reads the licence agreement before they click Agree.

So what Facebook users didn’t realise was that they had already, apparently, agreed to be subjects of vast psychological experiments in emotional manipulation.

In a study with academics from Cornell and the University of California, Facebook filtered users news feeds – the flow of comments, videos, pictures and web links posted by other people in their social network. One test reduced users exposure to their friends “positive emotional content”, resulting in fewer positive posts of their own. Another test reduced exposure to “negative emotional content” and the opposite happened.The study concluded: “Emotions expressed by friends, via online social networks, influence our own moods, constituting, to our knowledge, the first experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks.”

You can read more on this story here: Facebook reveals news feed experiment to control emotions | Technology | The Guardian.

Charlie Booker’s reaction to the story, also in The Guardian, is worth a read. Snip:

In other words, the fine folk at Facebook are so hopelessly disconnected from ground-level emotional reality they have to employ a team of scientists to run clandestine experiments on hundreds of thousands of their “customers” to discover that human beings get upset when other human beings they care about are unhappy.

This is a very interesting notion. The internet runs on a bedrock of nerds, and Facebook itself seems to have been developed by somebody who had so little emotional intelligence that he designed a system that encouraged people to state categorically whether they were single or in a relationship, and, in its original version, reduced the act of getting in touch with someone to the act of “poking”. Facebook’s corporate culture reflects this lack of emotional intelligence, which has side effects such as the controversial ban on photos of breastfeeding mothers. This experiment is confirmation, as Charlie Booker points out, that Facebook, as a corporate entity, doesn’t understand or have empathy.

To understand how serious this might be, read Laurie Penny’s take in The New Statesman. As she points out, as well as manipulating people’s emotional states, Facebook has previously experimented with encouraging/discouraging its users from voting.

Nobody has ever had this sort of power before. No dictator in their wildest dreams has been able to subtly manipulate the daily emotions of more than a billion humans so effectively. There are no precedents for what Facebook is doing here. Facebook itself is the precedent. What the company does now will influence how the corporate powers of the future understand and monetise human emotion. Dr Adam Kramer, the man behind the study and a longtime member of the company’s research team, commented in an excited Q & A that “Facebook data constitutes the largest field study in the history of the world.” The ethics of this situation have yet to be unpacked.

Just think for a moment about the power that Facebook has. It has 1.25 billion users. That’s a fairly large percentage of the world’s population, many of them in supposed mature democracies. The Sun newspaper sells just over 2 million copies every day. That’s half the number it was selling a couple of decades ago. And yet, British politicians are so afraid of the power of The Sun that it seems that they will do anything to ingratiate themselves to its editors and proprietors.

If The Sun has that much power with 2 million sales, how much power does Facebook have with 1.25 billion users?

Now imagine this. What if Facebook and its corporate owners were not benign? What if they decided to manipulate society and politics in its own corporate interests, as opposed to the personal, human interests of its many users?

Your intimate secrets and Facebook

Me and my 542 bestest friends (on Facebook)

Me and my 542 bestest friends (on Facebook) (Photo credit: tychay)

You may have seen this story concerning Facebook, privacy, and data mining, which was widely reported on Monday. Here’s the Guardian:

Facebook users are unwittingly revealing intimate secrets – including their sexual orientation, drug use and political beliefs – using only public “like” updates, according to a study of online privacy.

The research into 58,000 Facebook users in the US found that sensitive personal characteristics about people can be accurately inferred from information in the public domain.

Researchers were able to accurately infer a Facebook user’s race, IQ, sexuality, substance use, personality or political views using only a record of the subjects and items they had “liked” on Facebook – even if users had chosen not to reveal that information.

The study will reopen the debate about privacy in the digital age and raise fresh concerns about what information people share online.

via Facebook users unwittingly revealing intimate secrets, study finds | Technology | The Guardian.

Then, yesterday, Helen Lewis wrote a Comment is Free piece about the story. She suggests first of all that our concept of privacy is a fairly recent phenomenon and that some of the “secrets” people were “giving away” are trivial. She goes on to argue that modern teenagers already conceive of privacy in different terms than do adults.

But surely, you might say, think of the children! Well, the truth is that our wired teenagers clearly don’t see privacy in the way that we do, and are even happier than we are to overshare online. Their generation will have to live with the consequences of posting those drunken party pictures where a future employer might see them.

Then again, give it another generation and their employers might have drunken party pictures on the internet too. Just as we might feel righteous indignation if family members burst into our bedroom without asking, so our ideas of privacy might look baffling to the humans of the future.

via Like it or not, privacy has changed in the Facebook age.

Finally, here’s a piece from Today’s New Statesman, in which Alex Hearn argues that people have already changed the way they use Facebook and are growing ever-more savvy about what they give away:

Facebook is designed to be used in a way that corresponds with the actual use patterns of fewer and fewer of its members. Even “active users”—its new preferred metric, since the total number of registered users is now limited by the population of the earth—may not be active the way it likes us to be.

The perfect Facebook user checks in whenever they go somewhere; they like the pages of all their favourite bands, movies, TV shows, and even their dentist; they tell Facebook where they work and went to school; they visit other sites through apps on Facebook; and they never, ever change their privacy settings from the default.

Does that describe you? Does that describe anyone?

Via, Don’t fear Facebook, pity it.

Hearn goes on to suggest that the thing we should worry about more is what we accidentally share, as opposed to what we volunteer. This all goes back the end-user and how much they know. Are most Facebook users aware that they are the product that Facebook sells? Are we aware of being Google’s product? I’d say a growing proportion of people are. One of the interesting things about Twitter is that it has never insisted on your real name. Some people use theirs, others don’t. It’s especially evident that very few teenagers use their real names on Twitter, which makes it much more attractive.

As you’ll know (or soon will) from my lessons, I’m of the opinion that social networks rise and fall around chat. As any teacher knows, teenagers are all about the chat. From MSN to MySpace, from Facebook to Twitter, people go where their friends are, so they can chat without using up their monthly text message allowance. Alex Hearn points out that Facebook is just a glorified message service. If people stop using it for that, it’s dead.

Facebook, it’s time for a break | Ars Technica


We all have that friend who has stubbornly disappeared from Facebook at one time or another, only to reappear some weeks or months later. In fact, that friend has a good chance of being you, according to a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The report, published Tuesday, says a hefty majority of Facebook users—61 percent—report having “taken a break” from the site for several weeks or more, largely because they didn’t have the time or energy to be part of Facebook’s Internet society.

Of the 1,006 Pew surveyed in December 2012, seemingly everybody said they’d gotten sick of Facebook at some point, but 20 percent said they were currently on their Facebook sabbaticals

via Facebook, it’s time for a break | Ars Technica.

Here’s The Guardian’s take on the same story.

Facebook’s graph search is a creeper’s dream – New Statesman


So you can use Facebook Graph Search to find “Married people who like Prostitutes” (and then click on one button to get a list of their spouses), “Spouses of married people who like [cheat-on-your-partner dating site] Ashley Madison” or “Family members of people who live in China and like [the very very banned] Falun Gong”.

Some of those — particularly the first one — will be “ironic” likes. Saying you like something on Facebook doesn’t mean you actually like it, after all. But others won’t; and it’s hard to imagine the Chinese government particularly caring if someone expressed support for Falun Gong “ironically” or not.

And then there’s the creeper potential (try “Single women who live nearby and who are interested in men and like Getting Drunk”, for instance).

via Facebook’s graph search is a creeper’s dream. (New Statesman)

Oh, and here’s a link to the Tumblr blog that got the press into a tizzy of article writing. There are some interesting comments from the blogger himself, and you can scroll down to see his few entries. He makes the important point that these are the early days of “graph search” and that the people exposed by these searches aren’t necessarily stupid – they simply don’t know enough to worry about privacy.

These People Aren’t Stupid

Maybe people will get a bit more savvy as a result of this; most likely, they won’t. The people showing up here aren’t stupid: they just don’t have the knowledge required to be safe. If I took my car to a garage for a tune-up, a disreputable mechanic could fleece me for unwanted repairs and I’d never know it: that doesn’t make me stupid, it just means my knowledge is in other areas.

Graph Search jokes are a good way of startling people into checking their privacy settings — but most people will never actually be affected by accidentally making data ‘public’. (Of course, for the unlucky ones, it won’t be a gamble worth taking.)

They weren’t worried enough about privacy before, but now, maybe, graph search will make them worry more.

The rise and #fail of the Guardian Facebook app


This blog post is worth a read, though it’s quite technical about the underpinnings of the web (and can take a while to load on a slow connection because there are huge graphics). Do persevere, though, because you’ll learn something about how powerful Facebook has become in terms of generating web traffic, and how organisations like The Guardian have been working with them.

In a nutshell, the Guardian introduced a Facebook app, but instead of trying to drive traffic to the main Guardian site, they tried to use what Facebook were calling “frictionless sharing”, which was to keep you within Facebook, but offer you further links to other articles popular with Facebook users.

The idea was, it seems, to try to grab more eyeballs. The Guardian’s 40 million users seems like a lot – until you compare that number to Facebook’s 800 million members. As the article says, the potential power of frictionless sharing was immense. One user shares with 150 friends, and if just 10% of those read the article and 10% of those install the app, then the numbers could grow very rapidly indeed.

The problem for the Guardian was that people have become increasingly suspicious about everything Facebook does – and people are worrying more than they were about their privacy. As we discussed in class the other day, there’s even a sense that Facebook is losing its allure.

It also turns out that Facebook is in a state of permanent revolution, changing the way it works and changing is policies more or less every six months. So it ends up with the Guardian cancelling their app and trying some other way to get hold of those Facebook eyeballs.

The app was launched in September 2011 as one of several using Facebook’s new “frictionless share” feature. After a user authorised a publisher to do so, websites and apps could post directly to a their timeline without them having to explicitly share an item.

As can often be the case with many Facebook changes, the feature was greeted with suspicion and a lot of criticism.

And I’ve had some bad reviews in my time, but a tweeted death threat to “the children of whoever designed it” was a new low. I use a different tweet in presentations to illustrate the negative reactions, for the brilliant combination of lots of swearing AND caps lock:


via The rise and #fail of the Guardian Facebook app.

Twitter is like moving to New York City – forever


facebook (Photo credit: sitmonkeysupreme)

Via @kottke, I discovered this great piece by Matt Haughey: “Why I Love Twitter and Barely Tolerate Facebook”, which perfectly encapsulates my own feelings about the two different social networks.

His critique only really works if you’re old enough to have lost touch with a bunch of people. So, for example, by the time you get to university, there will be school friends you might well not see as much, or at all. When you start work, same thing. I’ve gone through life burning most of my bridges, so apart from my family, I am in touch with exactly no school friends and just one university friend. As for my various jobs, I’m vaguely in touch with a few people from the last one, just because of Twitter, and, er, that’s it.

Facebook, though, is all about keeping in touch. Anyone you add as a friend will appear in your news feed (unless you mute them), pretty much forever. So Facebook tends to be (as Haughey puts it) “mired in the past.” Twitter, on the other hand, is all present tense. It’s hard to even find your own older tweets, let alone anyone else’s. You discuss what’s on your mind right now, what’s in the news, what’s on TV, but you don’t reminisce much. In other words, Twitter allows you to be whoever you are right now, whereas Facebook still anchors you to your past self.

There’s no memory at Twitter: everything is fleeting. Though that concept may seem daunting to some (archivists, I feel your pain), it also means the content in my feed is an endless stream of new information, either comments on what is happening right now or thoughts about the future. One of the reasons I loved the Internet when I first discovered it in the mid-1990s was that it was a clean slate, a place that welcomed all regardless of your past as you wrote your new life story; where you’d only be judged on your words and your art and your photos going forward.

Facebook is mired in the past. My spouse resisted Facebook for many years and recently I got to watch over her shoulder as she signed up for an account. They asked her about her birth and where she grew up and what schools she attended, who her family might be. By the end of the process, she was asking me how this website figured out her entire social circles in high school and college. It was more than a little creepy, but that’s where her experience began.

When you leave school and go to university, it should be an opportunity to reinvent yourself, throw off the shackles of the past, and be someone new. You shouldn’t have to keep justifying that beard, those tattoos, the West Coast Gypsy look you’ve adopted, the fact that you’ve stopped listening to landfill indie and are now into something else.

Jason Kottke, via whose Twitter feed I found the Haughey post, adds a useful coda to it by referring to Scott Schuman’s street fashion blog, The Sartorialist. In particular, @kottke links to two photos of the same woman taken three months apart. Take a look. I’ll wait. In the first photo, she’s just arrived in New York City from the mid-west, and doesn’t know many people. She’s just finding her feet. In the second, she’s totally reinvented herself. Kottke explains,

For a certain type of person, changing oneself might be one of the best ways of feeling free and in control of one’s own destiny. And in the social media world, Twitter feels like continually moving to NYC without knowing anyone whereas Facebook feels like you’re living in your hometown and hanging with everyone you went to high school with.

For those who don’t like Twitter, it may be because it feels a little like being all at sea. You don’t know what’s going on, it’s hard to keep up with, you keep feeling like you’re seeing one side of a conversation (e.g. when someone tweets about what they’re watching on TV without telling you what it is), and it can feel like it has no point and no structure. But its lack of structure is the point. Twitter is a busy city street full of people you don’t know living lives of which you can only catch glimpses. It’s “Overheard in New York” but as if you were actually living it. While some people are overwhelmed by the city and yearn for the streets of their home town (not that there’s anything wrong with that), others thrive on it.

Enthusiastic girl: Hi! I’m in your class. Can we be friends?
Burn out boy: … Yeah I guess.
Enthusiastic girl: Can we study together?
Burn out boy: Sure…
Enthusiastic girl: Great! What are you doing right now?
Burn out boy: Uhh…

–Bleecker St. and Mercer St.

Overheard by: Bruce Lee

Cult of Mac » Creepy App Isn’t Just Stalking Women, It’s A Wake-Up Call About Facebook Privacy [Update]


UPDATE: the app has now been pulled from the App Store. More about it in this video. Makes you wonder what kind of moral compass Apple has, that it need other people to point these things out. I mean, they ban pornography, but apparently stalking women is okay.

Here’s a good read, with a couple of follow-ups, about the iPhone app Girls Around Me, which enables anyone with a FourSquare account to log in and stalk women see at a glance where the girls are. For those of us who have been hammering on about how young people don’t care enough about their privacy, this is just one more example of why they should. I can imagine a few people might not care that the guy who approaches you in a bar with your favourite drink, and who seems so perfect because he likes the same things you do, actually got all that information by geolocating you and checking your (open) Facebook page. But I also think that it’s fairly predatory behaviour, crossing the line from chasing into stalking.

Where is that line? It’s the line between a situation in which people wanting to chat each other up do their best to make a connection based on face-to-face communication; and one in which one party has inside information and knows which buttons to push. The article is worth a read, if only because it enumerates all the things it’s possible to learn from somebody’s Facebook account, if they choose to leave it open to the public (even down to pictures of what she looks like in a bikini):

In answer to the first question, I replied that as sleazy as this app seemed, Girls Around Me wasn’t actually doing anything wrong. Sure, on the surface, it looks like a hook-up app like Grindr for potential stalkers and date rapists, but all that Girls Around Me is really doing is using public APIs from Google Maps, Facebook and Foursquare and mashing them all up together, so you could see who had checked-in at locations in your area, and learn more about them. Moreover, the girls (and men!) shown in Girls Around Me all had the power to opt out of this information being visible to strangers, but whether out of ignorance, apathy or laziness, they had all neglected to do so. This was all public information. Nothing Girls Around Me does violates any of Apple’s policies.

via Cult of Mac Mobile » This Creepy App Isn’t Just Stalking Women Without Their Knowledge, It’s A Wake-Up Call About Facebook Privacy [Update].

Here’s the first follow-up: because of the above article Foursquare revoked access to its API, so Girls Around Me can no longer use it.

Here’s the second: a blog entry by SF writer Charlie Stross, in which he discusses how your privacy has been commodified, and how it’s in Facebook’s interest to encourage you to “over share” information about yourself. They do this by constantly changing their privacy policy and settings, by introducing things like the Timeline. It works because you’re too busy to keep up with this stuff, and you get tired of constantly checking your settings. As the people around you give up and reveal too much about themselves, you also start to think that over-sharing is normal, and that people who don’t over-share are a bit odd. Here’s Charlie Stross’ final paragraph:

But as I said earlier, the app is not the problem. The problem is the deployment by profit-oriented corporations of behavioural psychology techniques to induce people to over-share information which can then be aggregated and disclosed to third parties for targeted marketing purposes.

Facebook passwords ‘fair game in job interviews’ – Telegraph


facebook (Photo credit: sitmonkeysupreme)

More Facebook fun.

It’s the Catch 22 (look it up) of the 21st century. If you have robust privacy settings on your account, they think you’ve got something to hide. If you have fewer privacy settings, they see you in photos at parties with pints of vodka on your head.

It’s the logical extension of all those invasive post-9/11 security checks, and the people who say, well if you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve got nothing to worry about.

Tell that to the Italian student who was harassed by Community Support chimps, knocked to the ground, arrested, and jailed in 2009 — just for taking tourist-type photos of London tourist spots (“Come to London for 2012: we’ll beat you up and steal your camera”).

What to do? Employers seem to think they have the right to tell you how to live (teachers are already strongly advised not to have Facebook at all) and to judge the way you behave away from work. You want to just kick them in the balls and walk away, but you need the money for pints of vodka. This is also a logical extension of the obsession that some US politicians have with women and what they choose to do with their bodies. Employers seem to be demanding Facebook log-on details in two situations: first, when they can’t find you on there at all (I’m not on, is that a problem?); and second, when you have sensible security precautions in place.

So, two solutions: one, walk away from the interview with a few choice words; two, create a sock puppet Facebook account in which you are to be seen helping old ladies cross the road (whether they want to cross the road or not) and feeding the hungry with loaves and fishes.

Idea for a startup business: offer a service creating sock puppet Facebook accounts, complete with wholesome friends, lots of charity work and nice library photos of you photoshopped into outward bound courses and working with children (with no hint of paedophilia).

Read more at the Telegraph:

While Lee Williams, an online retail worker from the Midlands, told The Telegraph that he was asked by his managing director for his Facebook login details, after his boss had looked him up on the social network and could not see any details about him as his privacy settings were locked down. The boss thought that Williams was hiding something by not having his profile publicly available.

Williams refused to hand his password over. His boss persisted with his request, but then let it go without taking any further action. Williams still works for the company, but did not wish to name it.


Facebook updating its privacy policy – again


Is it Thursday already? Must be time for Facebook to change its privacy policy again. Just in case you were beginning to get a grip on it.

Constant change is a hallmark of a totalitarian régime. Chairman Mao’s permanent revolution. Or my old sociopath boss, who used to just make everybody move around the office every few months just because he hated the idea that anyone was feeling comfortable or enjoying their work.

Facebook keep changing privacy in the hope that you’ll give up trying to keep on top of it, and just let everything go to the default. When you do that, they can sell more of your data. And keep changing the privacy setting so that more of your data is available by default.

The really confusing thing is this business about your friends installing apps which then have access not just to your friends‘ data, but to anything you happen to share with your friend. I guess this is the bit of the privacy policy I was puzzling over in class, the bit that says something like “How much of your data your friends bring with them when they use apps.” It’s that verb bring. It sounds friendly, you know, like “bring a bottle,” or “bring a plus-one”. What they actually mean is take. Which sounds more like stealing, or at least taking without asking.

To begin with, the company’s privacy policy is now being renamed its “Data Use Policy,” perhaps better reflecting Facebook’s shift from a single website to a platform unto itself. Other changes include clearer descriptions of some behaviors users may not be so pleased with, such as how your information is shared with Facebook apps: if one of your friends installs an app, that app will be able to access any information you’re sharing with said friend, whether you’ve approved it directly or not.

via Facebook updating its privacy policy tomorrow, users have until today to comment | The Verge.

Facebook study finds link to socially aggressive narcissism | Technology | guardian.co.uk


A number of previous studies have linked narcissism with Facebook use, but this is some of the first evidence of a direct relationship between Facebook friends and the most “toxic” elements of narcissistic personality disorder.

Researchers at Western Illinois University studied the Facebook habits of 294 students, aged between 18 and 65, and measured two “socially disruptive” elements of narcissism – grandiose exhibitionism (GE) and entitlement/exploitativeness (EE).

GE includes ”self-absorption, vanity, superiority, and exhibitionistic tendencies” and people who score high on this aspect of narcissism need to be constantly at the centre of attention. They often say shocking things and inappropriately self-disclose because they cannot stand to be ignored or waste a chance of self-promotion.

via Facebook’s ‘dark side’: study finds link to socially aggressive narcissism | Technology | guardian.co.uk.