In defense of Facebook

[UPDATE July 1st: I’ve now posted some additional thoughts in a second post here.]

It feels a bit strange to write this post’s title, because I don’t find myself defending Facebook very often. But there seems to be some discontent in the socialmediaverse at the moment over a new study in which Facebook data scientists conducted a large-scale–over half a million participants!–experimental manipulation on Facebook in order to show that emotional contagion occurs on social networks. The news that Facebook has been actively manipulating its users’ emotions has, apparently, enraged a lot of people.

The study

Before getting into the sources of that rage–and why I think it’s misplaced–though, it’s worth describing the study and its results. Here’s a description of the basic procedure, from the paper:

The experiment manipulated the extent to which people (N = 689,003) were exposed to emotional expressions in their News Feed. This tested whether exposure to emotions led people to change their own posting behaviors, in particular whether exposure to emotional content led people to post content that was consistent with the exposure—thereby testing whether exposure to verbal affective expressions leads to similar verbal expressions, a form of emotional contagion. People who viewed Facebook in English were qualified for selection into the experiment. Two parallel experiments were conducted for positive and negative emotion: One in which exposure to friends’ positive emotional content in their News Feed was reduced, and one in which exposure to negative emotional content in their News Feed was reduced. In these conditions, when a person loaded their News Feed, posts that contained emotional content of the relevant emotional valence, each emotional post had between a 10% and 90% chance (based on their User ID) of being omitted from their News Feed for that specific viewing.

And here’s their central finding:

What the figure shows is that, in the experimental conditions, where negative or positive emotional posts are censored, users produce correspondingly more positive or negative emotional words in their own status updates. Reducing the number of negative emotional posts users saw led those users to produce more positive, and fewer negative words (relative to the unmodified control condition); conversely, reducing the number of presented positive posts led users to produce more negative and fewer positive words of their own.

Taken at face value, these results are interesting and informative. For the sake of contextualizing the concerns I discuss below, though, two points are worth noting. First, these effects, while highly statistically significant, are tiny. The largest effect size reported had a Cohen’s d of 0.02–meaning that eliminating a substantial proportion of emotional content from a user’s feed had the monumental effect of shifting that user’s own emotional word use by two hundredths of a standard deviation. In other words, the manipulation had a negligible real-world impact on users’ behavior. To put it in intuitive terms, the effect of condition in the Facebook study is roughly comparable to a hypothetical treatment that increased the average height of the male population in the United States by about one twentieth of an inch (given a standard deviation of ~2.8 inches). Theoretically interesting, perhaps, but not very meaningful in practice.

Second, the fact that users in the experimental conditions produced content with very slightly more positive or negative emotional content doesn’t mean that those users actually felt any differently. It’s entirely possible–and I would argue, even probable–that much of the effect was driven by changes in the expression of ideas or feelings that were already on users’ minds. For example, suppose I log onto Facebook intending to write a status update to the effect that I had an “awesome day today at the beach with my besties!” Now imagine that, as soon as I log in, I see in my news feed that an acquaintance’s father just passed away. I might very well think twice about posting my own message–not necessarily because the news has made me feel sad myself, but because it surely seems a bit unseemly to celebrate one’s own good fortune around people who are currently grieving. I would argue that such subtle behavioral changes, while certainly responsive to others’ emotions, shouldn’t really be considered genuine cases of emotional contagion. Yet given how small the effects were, one wouldn’t need very many such changes to occur in order to produce the observed results. So, at the very least, the jury should still be out on the extent to which Facebook users actually feel differently as a result of this manipulation.

The concerns

Setting aside the rather modest (though still interesting!) results, let’s turn to look at the criticism. Here’s what Katy Waldman, writing in a Slate piece titled “Facebook’s Unethical Experiment“, had to say:

The researchers, who are affiliated with Facebook, Cornell, and the University of California–San Francisco, tested whether reducing the number of positive messages people saw made those people less likely to post positive content themselves. The same went for negative messages: Would scrubbing posts with sad or angry words from someone’s Facebook feed make that person write fewer gloomy updates?

The upshot? Yes, verily, social networks can propagate positive and negative feelings!

The other upshot: Facebook intentionally made thousands upon thousands of people sad.

Or consider an article in the The Wire, quoting Jacob Silverman:

“What’s disturbing about how Facebook went about this, though, is that they essentially manipulated the sentiments of hundreds of thousands of users without asking permission (blame the terms of service agreements we all opt into). This research may tell us something about online behavior, but it’s undoubtedly more useful for, and more revealing of, Facebook’s own practices.”

On Twitter, the reaction to the study has been similarly negative). A lot of people appear to be very upset at the revelation that Facebook would actively manipulate its users’ news feeds in a way that could potentially influence their emotions.

Why the concerns are misplaced

To my mind, the concerns expressed in the Slate piece and elsewhere are misplaced, for several reasons. First, they largely mischaracterize the study’s experimental procedures–to the point that I suspect most of the critics haven’t actually bothered to read the paper. In particular, the suggestion that Facebook “manipulated users’ emotions” is quite misleading. Framing it that way tacitly implies that Facebook must have done something specifically designed to induce a different emotional experience in its users. In reality, for users assigned to the experimental condition, Facebook simply removed a variable proportion of status messages that were automatically detected as containing positive or negative emotional words. Let me repeat that: Facebook removed emotional messages for some users. It did not, as many people seem to be assuming, add content specifically intended to induce specific emotions. Now, given that a large amount of content on Facebook is already highly emotional in nature–think about all the people sharing their news of births, deaths, break-ups, etc.–it seems very hard to argue that Facebook would have been introducing new risks to its users even if it had presented some of them with more emotional content. But it’s certainly not credible to suggest that replacing 10% – 90% of emotional content with neutral content constitutes a potentially dangerous manipulation of people’s subjective experience.

Second, it’s not clear what the notion that Facebook users’ experience is being “manipulated” really even means, because the Facebook news feed is, and has always been, a completely contrived environment. I hope that people who are concerned about Facebook “manipulating” user experience in support of research realize that Facebook is constantly manipulating its users’ experience. In fact, by definition, every single change Facebook makes to the site alters the user experience, since there simply isn’t any experience to be had on Facebook that isn’t entirely constructed by Facebook. When you log onto Facebook, you’re not seeing a comprehensive list of everything your friends are doing, nor are you seeing a completely random subset of events. In the former case, you would be overwhelmed with information, and in the latter case, you’d get bored of Facebook very quickly. Instead, what you’re presented with is a carefully curated experience that is, from the outset, crafted in such a way as to create a more engaging experience (read: keeps you spending more time on the site, and coming back more often). The items you get to see are determined by a complex and ever-changing algorithm that you make only a partial contribution to (by indicating what you like, what you want hidden, etc.). It has always been this way, and it’s not clear that it could be any other way. So I don’t really understand what people mean when they sarcastically suggest–as Katy Waldman does in her Slate piece–that “Facebook reserves the right to seriously bum you out by cutting all that is positive and beautiful from your news feed”. Where does Waldman think all that positive and beautiful stuff comes from in the first place? Does she think it spontaneously grows wild in her news feed, free from the meddling and unnatural influence of Facebook engineers?

Third, if you were to construct a scale of possible motives for manipulating users’ behavior–with the global betterment of society at one end, and something really bad at the other end–I submit that conducting basic scientific research would almost certainly be much closer to the former end than would the other standard motives we find on the web–like trying to get people to click on more ads. The reality is that Facebook–and virtually every other large company with a major web presence–is constantly conducting large controlled experiments on user behavior. Data scientists and user experience researchers at Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. routinely run dozens, hundreds, or thousands of experiments a day, all of which involve random assignment of users to different conditions. Typically, these manipulations aren’t conducted in order to test basic questions about emotional contagion; they’re conducted with the explicit goal of helping to increase revenue. In other words, if the idea that Facebook would actively try to manipulate your behavior bothers you, you should probably stop reading this right now and go close your account. You also should definitely not read this paper suggesting that a single social message on Facebook prior to the last US presidential election the may have single-handedly increased national voter turn-out by as much as 0.6%). Oh, and you should probably also stop using Google, YouTube, Yahoo, Twitter, Amazon, and pretty much every other major website–because I can assure you that, in every single case, there are people out there who get paid a good salary to… yes, manipulate your emotions and behavior! For better or worse, this is the world we live in. If you don’t like it, you can abandon the internet, or at the very least close all of your social media accounts. But the suggestion that Facebook is doing something unethical simply by publishing the results of one particular experiment among thousands–and in this case, an experiment featuring a completely innocuous design that, if anything, is probably less motivated by a profit motive than most of what Facebook does–seems kind of absurd.

Fourth, it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s nothing intrinsically evil about the idea that large corporations might be trying to manipulate your experience and behavior. Everybody you interact with–including every one of your friends, family, and colleagues–is constantly trying to manipulate your behavior in various ways. Your mother wants you to eat more broccoli; your friends want you to come get smashed with them at a bar; your boss wants you to stay at work longer and take fewer breaks. We are always trying to get other people to feel, think, and do certain things that they would not otherwise have felt, thought, or done. So the meaningful question is not whether people are trying to manipulate your experience and behavior, but whether they’re trying to manipulate you in a way that aligns with or contradicts your own best interests. The mere fact that Facebook, Google, and Amazon run experiments intended to alter your emotional experience in a revenue-increasing way is not necessarily a bad thing if in the process of making more money off you, those companies also improve your quality of life. I’m not taking a stand one way or the other, mind you, but simply pointing out that without controlled experimentation, the user experience on Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. would probably be very, very different–and most likely less pleasant. So before we lament the perceived loss of all those “positive and beautiful” items in our Facebook news feeds, we should probably remind ourselves that Facebook’s ability to identify and display those items consistently is itself in no small part a product of its continual effort to experimentally test its offering by, yes, experimentally manipulating its users’ feelings and thoughts.

What makes the backlash on this issue particularly strange is that I’m pretty sure most people do actually realize that their experience on Facebook (and on other websites, and on TV, and in restaurants, and in museums, and pretty much everywhere else) is constantly being manipulated. I expect that most of the people who’ve been complaining about the Facebook study on Twitter are perfectly well aware that Facebook constantly alters its user experience–I mean, they even see it happen in a noticeable way once in a while, whenever Facebook introduces a new interface. Given that Facebook has over half a billion users, it’s a foregone conclusion that every tiny change Facebook makes to the news feed or any other part of its websites induces a change in millions of people’s emotions. Yet nobody seems to complain about this much–presumably because, when you put it this way, it seems kind of silly to suggest that a company whose business model is predicated on getting its users to use its product more would do anything other than try to manipulate its users into, you know, using its product more.

Why the backlash is deeply counterproductive

Now, none of this is meant to suggest that there aren’t legitimate concerns one could raise about Facebook’s more general behavior–or about the immense and growing social and political influence that social media companies like Facebook wield. One can certainly question whether it’s really fair to expect users signing up for a service like Facebook’s to read and understand user agreements containing dozens of pages of dense legalese, or whether it would make sense to introduce new regulations on companies like Facebook to ensure that they don’t acquire or exert undue influence on their users’ behavior (though personally I think that would be unenforceable and kind of silly). So I’m certainly not suggesting that we give Facebook, or any other large web company, a free pass to do as it pleases. What I am suggesting, however, is that even if your real concerns are, at bottom, about the broader social and political context Facebook operates in, using this particular study as a lightning rod for criticism of Facebook is an extremely counterproductive, and potentially very damaging, strategy.

Consider: by far the most likely outcome of the backlash Facebook is currently experiencing is that, in future, its leadership will be less likely to allow its data scientists to publish their findings in the scientific literature. Remember, Facebook is not a research institute expressly designed to further understanding of the human condition; it’s a publicly-traded corporation that exists to create wealth for its shareholders. Facebook doesn’t have to share any of its data or findings with the rest of the world if it doesn’t want to; it could comfortably hoard all of its knowledge and use it for its own ends, and no one else would ever be any wiser for it. The fact that Facebook is willing to allow its data science team to spend at least some of its time publishing basic scientific research that draws on Facebook’s unparalleled resources is something to be commended, not criticized.

There is little doubt that the present backlash will do absolutely nothing to deter Facebook from actually conducting controlled experiments on its users, because A/B testing is a central component of pretty much every major web company’s business strategy at this point–and frankly, Facebook would be crazy not to try to empirically determine how to improve user experience. What criticism of the Kramer et al article will almost certainly do is decrease the scientific community’s access to, and interaction with, one of the largest and richest sources of data on human behavior in existence. You can certainly take a dim view of Facebook as a company if you like, and you’re free to critique the way they do business to your heart’s content. But haranguing Facebook and other companies like it for publicly disclosing scientifically interesting results of experiments that it is already constantly conducting anyway–and that are directly responsible for many of the positive aspects of the user experience–is not likely to accomplish anything useful. If anything, it’ll only ensure that, going forward, all of Facebook’s societally relevant experimental research is done in the dark, where nobody outside the company can ever find out–or complain–about it.

[UPDATE July 1st: I’ve posted some additional thoughts in a second post here.]

more on the absence of brain training effects

A little while ago I blogged about the recent Owen et al Nature study on the (null) effects of cognitive training. My take on the study, which found essentially no effect of cognitive training on generalized cognitive performance, was largely positive. In response, Martin Walker, founder of Mind Sparke, maker of Brain Fitness Pro software, left this comment:

I’ve done regular aerobic training for pretty much my entire life, but I’ve never had the kind of mental boost from exercise that I have had from dual n-back training. I’ve also found that n-back training helps my mood.

There was a foundational problem with the BBC study in that it didn’t provide anywhere near the intensity of training that would be required to show transfer. The null hypothesis was a forgone conclusion. It seems hard to believe that the scientists didn’t know this before they began and were setting out to debunk the populist brain game hype.

I think there are a couple of points worth making. One is the standard rejoinder that one anecdotal report doesn’t count for very much. That’s not meant as a jibe at Walker in particular, but simply as a general observation about the fallibility of human judgment. Many people are perfectly convinced that homeopathic solutions have dramatically improved their quality of life, but that doesn’t mean we should take homeopathy seriously. Of course, I’m not suggesting that cognitive training programs are as ineffectual as homeopathy–in my post, I suggested they may well have some effect–but simply that personal testimonials are no substitute for controlled studies.

With respect to the (also anecdotal) claim that aerobic exercise hasn’t worked for Walker, it’s worth noting that the effects of aerobic exercise on cognitive performance take time to develop. No one expects a single brisk 20-minute jog to dramatically improve cognitive performance. If you’ve been exercising regularly your whole life, the question isn’t whether exercise will improve your cognitive function–it’s whether not doing any exercise for a month or two would lead to poorer performance. That is, if Walker stopped exercising, would his cognitive performance suffer? It would be a decidedly unhealthy hypothesis to test, of course, but that would really be the more reasonable prediction. I don’t think anyone thinks that a person in excellent physical condition would benefit further from physical exercise; the point is precisely that most people aren’t in excellent physical shape. In any event, as I noted in my post, the benefits of aerobic exercise are clearly largest for older adults who were previously relatively sedentary. There’s much less evidence for large effects of aerobic exercise on cognitive performance in young or middle-aged adults.

The more substantive question Walker raises has to do with whether the tasks Owen et al used were too easy to support meaningful improvement. I think this is a reasonable question, but I don’t think the answer is as straightforward as Walker suggests. For one thing, participants in the Owen et al study did show substantial gains in performance on the training tasks (just not the untrained tasks), so it’s not like they were at ceiling. That is, the training tasks clearly weren’t easy. Second, participants varied widely in the number of training sessions they performed, and yet, as the authors note, the correlation between amount of training and cognitive improvement was negligible. So if you extrapolate from the observed pattern, it doesn’t look particularly favorable. Third, Owen et al used 12 different training tasks that spanned a broad range of cognitive abilities. While one can quibble with any individual task, it’s hard to reconcile the overall pattern of null results with the notion that cognitive training produces robust effects. Surely at least some of these measures should have led to a noticeable overall effect if they successfully produced transfer. But they didn’t.

To reiterate what I said in my earlier post, I’m not saying that cognitive training has absolutely no effect. No study is perfect, and it’s conceivable that more robust effects might be observed given a different design. But the Owen et al study is, to put it bluntly, the largest study of cognitive training conducted to date by about two orders of magnitude, and that counts for a lot in an area of research dominated by relatively small studies that have generally produced mixed findings. So, in the absence of contradictory evidence from another large training study, I don’t see any reason to second-guess Owen et al’s conclusions.

Lastly, I don’t think Walker is in any position to cast aspersions on people’s motivations (“It seems hard to believe that the scientists didn’t know this before they began and were setting out to debunk the populist brain game hype”). While I don’t think that his financial stake in brain training programs necessarily impugns his evaluation of the Owen et al study, it can’t exactly promote impartiality either. And for what it’s worth, I dug around the Mind Sparke website and couldn’t find any “scientific proof” that the software works (which is what the website claims)–just some vague allusions to customer testimonials and some citations of other researchers’ published work (none of which, as far as I can tell, used Brain Fitness Pro for training).