Facebook’s Social Research Experiment

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Facebook are back in the news again, this time for conducting research without the consent of their users. Although maybe that is a false statement, users may well have signed those rights away without realizing too.

All Facebook did was to “deprioritizing a small percentage of content in News Feed (based on whether there was an emotional word in the post) for a group of people (about 0.04% of users, or 1 in 2500) for a short period (one week, in early 2012). Nobody’s posts were “hidden,” they just didn’t show up on some loads of Feed. Those posts were always visible on friends’ timelines, and could have shown up on subsequent News Feed loads”. This is the explanation offered by the author of the report about the experiment. Read the full text here.

Simply speaking they wanted to adjust the type of information a user was exposed to to see if it effected their mood. So if a user receives lots of positive news, what will happen to them? What will they post about?

Some studies have suggested that lots of Facebook use tends to lead to people feeling bad about themselves. The logic is simple, all my friends post about how great their lives are and about the good side we might say. I who have a life that has both ups and downs are not exposed to the downs, so I feel that I am inadequate.

This sounds reasonable. I am not a Facebook user but the odd messages I get are rarely about arguing with partners, tax problems, getting locked out of the house, flat tyres, missed meetings or parking tickets. I presume Facebook users do not suffer from these issues, they always seem to be smiling.

So in order to test the hypothesis a little manipulation of the news feed. More positive or more negative words, and then look to see how the posts are effected. The theory above does not seem to hold water as a statistic however, although bearing in mind the methodology etc (and the conductor) I take the claims with a pinch of salt. More positive words tend to lead to more positive posts in response.

Hardly rocket science we might say.

I have a degree in sociology, an MA in Applied Social research and work in the field. Conducting experiments of this type is not allowed in professional circles, it is considered unethical, there is no informed consent, rights are infringed upon and the list goes on. What if somebody did something serious during the experiment?

Of course “The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product”.

If readers are interested in looking at a few other fun experiments that might be considered ethically dubious I can offer a few. Check out the Stanley Milgram experiment, where people administered (False) electric shocks to other people who got the answers to their questions wrong. Yale University here, not a fringe department of Psychology. Researchers were investigating reactions to authority, and the results are very interesting, but you couldn’t do it today.

Or how about the so-called Monster study. The Monster Study was a stuttering experiment on 22 orphan children in Davenport, Iowa, in 1939 conducted by Wendell Johnson at the University of Iowa. After placing the children in control and experimental groups, Research Assistant Mary Tudor gave positive speech therapy to half of the children, praising the fluency of their speech, and negative speech therapy to the other half, belittling the children for every speech imperfection and telling them they were stutterers. Many of the normal speaking orphan children who received negative therapy in the experiment suffered negative psychological effects and some retained speech problems during the course of their life. The University of Iowa publicly apologized for the Monster Study in 2001.

Terrible as these experiments may sound, they were conducted in the name of science. Their results may have proved useful. Facebopok (along with 23andME and other commercial entities) are behaving in the way they are because they want to make more money, their interest is solely there (even if they dress it up as better user experience). And in the case of Facebook they have access to 1.3 billion users, and mandate to do whatever they like with them.

What have you agreed to?

Padlocked gateImage Credit

Whilst reading Animal Farm in school, my English teacher at the time had a reasonably poor memory, and as a result we would reread chapters several times, and we never actually finished the book. I did however get to see a (very impressive one-man) theatre production of the book, and I have seen the 1999 film – who’s idea was it to have a happy ending!

Anyway… today, in a BBC article it is reported that according to Fairer Finance, many car insurance policy documents are longer than George Orwell’s Animal Farm. One of the longest of the documents they found was Danske Bank’s terms and conditions which  contained almost 70,000 words – that’s more words than Animal Farm put together with Of Mice and Men – which was incidentally another book I read at school.

Of UK financial services companies, HSBC came in top with 34,162 words, whilst LV was the lowest with 6,901 – 27,261 fewer words.

Why?

For financial institutions legal jargon is important. Terms and conditions provide organisations with legal protection and are in some ways a measure of credibility and assurance – would you place trust in a bank which didn’t have any terms and conditions? I understand that they are important, but why do they need to be so long and full of technical jargon?

Do you think companies are aiming to dissuade people from reading their terms by making them so long-winded? If so, what could a business put in its terms? Could a social media site claim ownership of your face? Don’t be silly.

Do long, wordy terms of service not discriminate against slower readers, and people who have a life? Sometimes I struggle to keep up with my university reading, so how/why on earth am I expected to read a novel length script of jargon each time I open a current account?

Help is out there!

Facebook, Google and Twitter are no angels either, many websites also have ridiculously long terms of service. There is however consumer help for judging these sites, thanks to Terms of Service Didn’t Read. I use their browser extension for Firefox, and it is helpful.

YouTube tosdr

YouTube is rated D by Terms of Service; Didn’t Read

Fairer Finance have started a petition to try and bring down the small print and force organisations to be more concise and consumer friendly. Visit the campaign page and you can also send them any examples you have of annoyingly pointless small print.

Yawn Free Coffee

Colourful

EDITOR NOTE: This is Jonny’s 100th post From his humble beginnings writing about elective amputation, Jonny has taken Technology Bloggers by storm! Jonny started as a contributor, soon after earning himself author status and he has recently been awarded editor status. Congratulations and thank you from me and the rest of the community Jonny, you deserve it. Here is to the next 100! ;-)note by Christopher

Oh I am rather tired this morning, like many others. I need to have my daily coffee. Sometimes I imagine a world where my surroundings understand me, my needs and wishes. I had a teas-maid once, that was the closest I ever came to automated good life, but times have moved on.

Face recognition software offers the dream of a newly serviced life. And the dream is here already, well not here exactly but in South Africa.

Yes coffee producer Dowe Egberts have built a coffee machine that uses a camera and software that can read your face. When it sees a person yawn it automatically produces a free cup of coffee for them. Check out this video on Youtube. Or get a free coffee by yawning next time you pass through the O.R. Tambo International Airport.

This is of course all done for publicity, but it does open up a train of thought that leads into science fiction.

This is not my first post about face recognition software. I wrote one earlier this year about Verizon’s project to fit it to TV top cable boxes, and the year before about mobile recognition apps, and since then there have been a few developments that I would like readers to note.

Researchers have been working on identifying individual animals using the same software. Cameras are often used to count wildlife in studies, but the problem often arises of determining which animals may have been counted twice. This problem could be overcome if the software could recognize the individual beasts, and scientists at Leipzig zoo have been working on such a project.

Do you know this one?

Do you know this one?

They have 24 chimpanzees to work with, and have designed a system that recognizes individual animals with up to 83% accuracy. The difficulty is getting good photos in the wild though, and in dim light the accuracy quickly drops, so the researchers have been designing new parameters to improve broader recognition.

Check out the article here to learn more.

On a slightly less positive note Facebook are again at the helm of recognition privacy. Once again, proposed changes to its privacy policy mean that already uploaded information is to be used differently.

Facebook has indicated that it will now reserve the right to add user profile pictures to its facial recognition database. Currently, only photos that a Facebook friend uploads and tags with a user’s name go into the facial recognition system. By opting out of the tag suggesting feature and declining to allow friends to tag him or her, a user can avoid being included in the social network’s facial recognition database.

No More might this be the case!

The change would mean that every user, of a population of a billion, whose face is visible in his or her profile photo would be included in the database. To sidestep the new feature, users will have to avoid showing their faces in their profile photos and delete any previous profile photos in which their faces are visible.

Facebook have however had problems implementing their recognition policies in Europe, and in fact the system was turned off in August of last year, but the new regulations seem to be another attempt at opening the door. See this article for a review of the arguments.

Regardless of whether you as an individual take these precaution, millions will not, and the database will grow massively overnight. And that will be worth a lot of money to somebody somewhere down the line, and have implications for all of us.

Blog Action Day 2013

Blogs all across the world are talking about human rights today. For the fourth year in a row I am taking part in Blog Action Day.

Blog Action Day's logoThis year the topic is human rights.

I am going to share with you might thoughts on the relationship between the Internet and human rights.

Imagine what it would be like if every day, a cloaked figure followed you around, observing your every action and taking notes. It would be a bit creepy wouldn’t it, not to mention the privacy issues.

Back in 2011, I wrote a post asking whether everyone should be entitled to use the Internet and whether in fact it should be a human right. Founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg believes that it should be; make your own decision as to whether this is only because he wants more business for his site.

So, imagine what it would be like with Mark Zuckerberg following you around all day, taking notes on what you do, invading your privacy… hold on, if you are on Facebook, he kind of does.

See how I linked that. ;-)

I am no stranger to complaining about Facebook, but it isn’t the only culprit, Google is also a huge threat to online privacy. It stores all information it collects about you for at least 18 months. Why? In the words of Hungry Beast, because “Google wants to know who you are, where you are and what you like, so it can target ads at you.Check out Hungry Beast’s video to scare yourself.

So to get to the point, I don’t believe access to the Internet need be a human right, (not yet anyway) however I do believe that the right to privacy online should be. The United Nations logoArticle 12 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

Why does this not cover our online lives too? Should Google, Amazon, Facebook, Yahoo and Apple (and others) be allowed to monitor us so much?

I shall keep this short and sweet and leave you with those thoughts.