Empathy and True Emotion in The Facebook Mood Experiment

A couple weeks ago, it was revealed that back in January 2012, Facebook ran a […]

Win Jordan / 7.16.14

Facebook Wall2A couple weeks ago, it was revealed that back in January 2012, Facebook ran a week long experiment on a small subset of unknowing users that has been dubbed “The Facebook Mood Experiment.” Facebook altered the status updates that these unwitting users saw and skewed them either more negatively (i.e. they saw more updates with sadder emotional content) or more positively (saw updates with happier emotional content). The experiment wanted to see if the content people saw their friends posting on Facebook affected their actual mood. It concluded that it did. The Atlantic breaks down the design of the experiment and its conclusion in more detail if you’re curious.

The uproar on the internet was immense. There’s confusion as to whether Facebook got this ethically approved. It seems as though they only sought to get it approved after they had conducted the experiment, and Facebook’s #2 officer, Sheryl Sandberg (of Lean In fame) has defended the experiment as “product testing.”

Whether this was ethical or not is an important debate, but I think the way they came to their conclusion was fascinatingly flawed. The way they determined the “mood” of the subjects once they were shown skewed newsfeeds was by what the subjects themselves posted. Those who were shown negative newsfeeds were more likely to post negative status updates themselves and vice versa. Facebook truly believes that we are honest about our feelings in our social media postings, which is fascinating because not only is that untrue, but rarely are we honest about our feelings in real life.

Imagine a friend comes to you with a distressing issue. Is this the time you pull out your vacation photos to show them what an amazing time you had? Not the best idea. Or after a friend tells you a great success they’ve just had. Is this the time to bring up your own great misfortune?

In truth, our social media postings reflect what we would do in real life if these avatars were actually at our doorsteps and in our living rooms saying the things written in their updates. As hard to believe as it is, Facebook’s “research” is grounded in the belief that what we write reflects our true emotional states. It’s not the first time it’s been said, but social media in general seems to cover up, rather than disclose, our real feelings.

But again, maybe this dishonesty is motivated out of care for an audience that the subjects saw as in need or already happy. Maybe social media is an avenue for that care. Or maybe we are just using it as a way to escape the discomfort of actually empathizing with another human being and just choosing to empathize in the most indirect way possible. We know that so little of social media is authentic. In some ways, like this example, it’s for the best, but we see now that Facebook itself does not believe this at all.

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