The more I read people’s reactions to this study, the more I’ve started to think the outrage has nothing to do with the study at all. There is a growing amount of negative sentiment towards Facebook and other companies that collect and use data about people. In short, there’s anger at the practice of big data.
Observing the kerfuffle around the Facebook “emotion contagion” study this week, one could see two typical reactions:
- “How could they do this? This is outrages!“
- “What are you angry about? Everybody is doing this all the time!“
But besides all the typical gut reactions, I was hoping that a more nuanced discussion would be triggered by this. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Here are our favorite articles about the Facebook study and connected topics that show how a conversation can be elevated by looking deeper and trying a more balanced approach, minding the complexity that comes with these kinds of topics.
Zeynep Tufekci in Facebook and Engineering the Public
Tufekci was one of the first to react, speaking mostly to the research community, demanding that it speaks to (new) power and uses it’s methods and models to investigate the manipulative abilities of tech companies.
To me, this resignation to online corporate power is a troubling attitude because these large corporations (and governments and political campaigns) now have new tools and stealth methods to quietly model our personality, our vulnerabilities, identify our networks, and effectively nudge and shape our ideas, desires and dreams. These tools are new, this power is new and evolving. It’s exactly the time to speak up!
danah boyd in What does the Facebook experiment teach us?
boyd first looked in detail at how “informed consent” works and the context of scientific research today. She then analyzes what we can learn about the public’s fear of big data by examining the reactions to the study.
Information companies aren’t the same as pharmaceuticals. They don’t need to do clinical trials before they put a product on the market. They can psychologically manipulate their users all they want without being remotely public about exactly what they’re doing. And as the public, we can only guess what the black box is doing.
Kate Crawford in The Test We Can—and Should—Run on Facebook
Crawford suggests that Facebook should do an experiment. They should let people opt-in to take part in research studies.
There is a tendency in big data studies to accord merit to massive sample sizes, regardless of the importance of the question or the significance of the findings. But if there’s something we’ve learned from the emotional contagion study, a large number of participants and data points does not necessarily produce good research.
Whitney Erin Boesel in Facebook’s Controversial Experiment: Big Tech Is the New Big Pharma
Boesel points to the difficult distinction between human subject research and data science in big data projects like this one. Another consequence is that the lines between corporate research and academic research are blurring with data companies offering lucrative jobs to scientists.
We need to create new basic standards for social and behavioral research, and these standards must apply equally to corporations and institutions, to market researchers and academic researchers, to data scientists and social scientists alike.
What they all talk about is the new power that these data companies hold, which demands a much bigger sensibility towards their users and in handling their data. In my opinion, this is maybe the biggest issue that the tech companies and the big data industry is facing right now.
Anab Jain in Valley of the Meatpuppets
With an increase in monitoring, surveillance, AI and big data, this ambiguity, this sense of uncertainty and unconnectedness will become more pronounced. Invisible wars over autonomy will become a recurring leitmotif of the 21st century.
All of this connects tremendously to a talk Anab Jain gave at Future Everything this year and which she posted this week.
She looks at the topic of power from a surveillance point of view, but goes much, much deeper to reveal the patterns that influence us and the approaches that will help us to create our own way.
As designers we believe it is important to think about wider complexities in order to challenge the deeper assumptions about technological power and control.
Highly recommended reading!