The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 1 (Spring 2015)

Uneasy in Digital Zion

Julia Ticona and Chad Wellmon

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.1 (Spring 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 1)

During the summer of 2014, two Cornell University scholars and a researcher from Facebook’s Data Science unit published a paper on what they termed “emotional contagion.” They claimed to show that Facebook’s news feed algorithm, the complex set of instructions that determines what shows up where in a news feed, could influence users’ emotional states. Using a data set of more than 689,000 Facebook accounts, they manipulated users’ news feeds so that some people saw more positive posts and others more negative posts. Over time, a slight change was detected in what users themselves put on Facebook: Those who saw more positive posts posted more positive posts of their own, while those who saw more negative posts posted more negative ones. Emotional contagion, the authors concluded, could spread among people without any direct interaction and “without their awareness.”1

Some critics lambasted Facebook for its failure to notify users that they were going to be part of a giant experiment on their emotions, but others thought it was cool.2 Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, just seemed confused. “This was part of ongoing research [that] companies do to test different products, and that was what it was; it was poorly communicated,” she said. “And for that communication we apologize. We never meant to upset you.”3 Facebook wasn’t experimenting with people; it was improving its product. That’s what businesses do: They serve their customers by better understanding their needs and desires. Some might call it manipulation. Facebook calls it product development.

The cofounder of the online dating site OkCupid, Christian Rudder, responded to the uproar with a snide blog post: “We noticed recently that people didn’t like it when Facebook ‘experimented’ with their news feed…. But, guess what, everybody: If you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work.”4

Rudder went on to describe some of OkCupid’s experiments, which ranged from removing pictures from profiles to facilitate “blind dates” to altering the algorithm that calculates matches to tell “bad matches” that they were “good matches.” Like Sandberg, Rudder claimed not to understand why people would be so worried about Facebook or OkCupid conducting a few experiments. “We’re only beginning to understand how much we can learn about ourselves and others from the data that is constantly being harvested from us,” said Salon journalist Andrew Leonard after interviewing Rudder. “The more we know, the better armed we are to navigate the future.”5

In their responses, Sandberg and Rudder revealed how either clueless or cynical they are about the central importance of social media platforms to users’ emotional lives. Facebook and OkCupid are not simply efficient tools for sharing baby pictures and finding dates in a new city; they are social spaces in which actual people pursue desires and craft lives. Even in the early days of the ARPANET, the Internet forerunner that was designed as an efficient tool for sharing information, networked technologies were, as psychologist Sherry Turkle has said, “taken up as technologies of relationship.”6

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  1. Adam D.I. Kramer, Jamie E. Guillory, and Jeffrey T. Hancock, “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111:24 (2014), 8788–8790.
  2. For a good discussion of the implications around research ethics and this experiment, see Jaron Lanier;®ion=c-column-top-span-region&WT.nav=c-column-top-span-region&_r=0.
  3. R. Jai Krishna with Reed Alergotti, “Sandberg: Facebook Study Was ‘Poorly Communicated,’” Digits [blog], Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2014;
  4. Christian Rudder, “We Experiment on Human Beings!,” OkTrends (blog), July 28, 2014;
  5. Andrew Leonard, “OkCupid Founder: ‘I Wish People Exercised More Humanity’ on OkCupid,” Salon, September 12, 2014;
  6. Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 157.

Julia Ticona is a doctoral candidate in the sociology department at the University of Virginia and a dissertation fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Her work focuses the cultures of technology and everyday life. Chad Wellmon is an associate professor of German Studies at the University of Virginia and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is the author most recently of Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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