Facebook’s Social Research Experiment

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.

Self Healing Plastic

One of the problems with plastic is that it is very difficult to repair once damaged. When there is a hole in your plastic bucket you cannot generally mend it. But researchers in Spain have developed the world’s first self healing plastic.

Cutting the self healing plastic

Cutting the self healing plastic

Researchers at the CIDETEC Centre for Electrochemical Technologies in San Sebastian, Spain have developed a plastic that once broken can heal itself. All the user has to do is put the pieces together and leave it at room temperature for a couple of hours, and the material kind of re-molds itself. The repair is said to be 97% perfect within a couple of hours, and perfect 2 days later, and a Youtube video demonstrating the strength of the repair is really quite incredible.

Plastics are made up of polymers, a long chain of molecules that are connected through chemical bonds. Natural polymers are everywhere. In nature, many polymers heal themselves when broken or sliced. Think of your skin when you have a small cut — as the two sides of the cut bind back together, you’re witnessing a self-healing polymer in action.

Synthetic polymers are just as common. Scientists started creating nylon and synthetic rubber to make up for the shortage of silk and rubber during World War II. PVC, polyester and many forms of plastic soon followed.

Putting the pieces together

Putting the pieces together

The Spanish have developed the first human-made self-healing polymer to function without a catalyst, they report in the Sept. 13 issue of the journal Materials Horizon. There are in fact other self healing plastics, but they require a catalyst to start the process (ultra violet light for example). Readers might know about self scratch repair paint, as advertised on TV. This paint is made from prawn shells, a fine example of a natural self healing material that uses the sun as catalyst.

The article states that “The idea behind this is to reconnect the chemical crosslinks which are broken when a material fractures, restoring the integrity of the material. This is expected to provide polymers with enhanced lifetime and resistance to fatigue”.

Testing the repair

Testing the repair

The researchers say this breakthrough will allow them to create stronger sealants, paints, adhesives and more. This could eventually lead to self-repairing pipes, bicycle tires and toys, among a million other possibilities.

Sounds great to me, and the less plastic we throw away the better.

Sequencing Baby DNA, a Project in Boston

Last week the Science in Mind blog on my local Boston.com website ran an interesting story that is definitely worthy of reflection. It involves 2 local hospitals that are carrying out a project funded by the National Institute of Health (USA). The projects involve sequencing the DNA of newly born babies over the next 5 years. Read all about it here.

Babies to have their DNA sequenced

Babies to have their DNA sequenced

Now sequencing the DNA of babies carries with it several risks and ethical concerns, as well as well argued benefits. If we take the benefits first, doctors may gain information about a baby, such as high risk for a certain disease, genetic mutations that may require changes of lifestyle etc. They might also find explanations for problems that might otherwise go undetected.

There are though as I say risks and concerns. How will parents react if they discover that their baby has a high risk of an incurable disease? How will the knowledge gained through the test effect the way the parents view and behave towards their children? Are we giving families information that will change their understanding of parenting to such a degree that it might destroy the very fabric of their social relationships?

This is not to mention the social implications of giving out such information regarding extended family. If for example I am told that my baby has a genetic mutation carried by the parents that might have a serious effect on its life, should I tell my brothers and cousins so that they can screen their prospective wives, make decisions about having children or even worse a pregnancy already in course? And not to mention the obvious problem of discovering that the father is not the man stood in the room with the mother.

These problems are in fact the issues that the researchers running the project are hoping to look into. The question is if the clinical benefits outweigh the risks of such an approach.

I have written a lot about this subject in recent years if you would like more to read:

In June of last year I wrote a post here on Technology Bloggers called Sequencing the Genome of Unborn Babies. I also raised a lot of similar ethical concerns in May of the same year in Home Genetic Testing, Pros and Cons.

On the Bassetti Foundation we find DNA Privacy Issues from January of this year, a series called Architectures for Life from 2012 and a review of a book called Go Ask Your Father, just for starters.

My own personal view is that much of the promise peddled to us surrounding medicine and the sequencing of the human genome has yet to be delivered. One problem is money. Personalized medicine sounds like a great idea. I get my genome sequenced, we can see which drugs might work the best, the type of treatment I need etc. But drug companies cannot make, test and market a drug especially for me even with all of this information, it is just not cost effective. They want big sellers, generic medicines that work to some extent on everybody, not something that is fantastic for me with my particular gene pool.

There are clinical benefits, I am not arguing otherwise, but we must wait to see how great.

Calling While Driving

One of the problems with humanity is that we all believe that we can do things safely even if others tell us that they are not safe. People who drive fast do so because they are good drivers (so they tell us), people claim that they can drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs when the statistics prove otherwise, and even making a call or texting does not distract some super-drivers.

Governments take some action in some form or other to try and stop people doing these things, but it is selective in nature. Let us take texting while driving as an example. In some countries it is illegal to drive and text at the same time. In the USA it is allowed in some states and prohibited in others. In some states you can talk on the phone, in others not you need a hands-free system.

The law though seems to be selective. Last week research published in the Science journal demonstrates that it is not holding the phone to text or speak that is the problem, it is the conversation itself that causes the distraction.


A typical sight today

A typical sight today?

The research showed little or no difference between the rate of accidents when people are using a hands-free system and when they are physically holding the phone. The type of conversation does make a difference though, the more the driver has to concentrate on the subject matter or think before replying, the more chance there is of having a crash.

They also found that any type of interaction, even listening to the radio, effects reaction times and attention paid to the road. The radio is the least invasive because it does not require a response, but I wonder if listening to a news show or a discussion that you have to concentrate to follow causes more distraction, a logical line of thought would seem to imply so. Interestingly enough voice to text is the most dangerous type of technological interaction addressed.

So there are laws against texting, and not holding a phone (I must add not everywhere) but why not make speaking hands-free illegal too? And we should bear in mind that cars are ever more designed for connectivity, and that means distraction, maybe this should also be regulated.

Well that would require a change in business practices and take away personal freedom some might say, but we should remember that driving is not a right, it is a privilege that is governed by rules.

This is a serious piece of research that uses eye monitoring technology to measure distraction and driver awareness. The findings are clear and there is plenty of supporting data from other sources, but how would you feel about not being able to make a call at all though while driving?

At least your boss couldn’t call you while you were on your way home.