Are Humans Ready to Get Researched on as Lab Rats? Asks New Book on Online Social Behaviour Research

A month or two ago, when a study came detailing how Facebook secretly manipulated the News Feed of some 700,000 users to study “emotional trigger which spreads quickly” by emotionally programming Facebook users receiving it to like it , the sizable portion of web and social media reacted angrily. The usual complain was : How can Facebook use some emotional trigger to make the Web users Zombies (unable to think consciously, what to like and what to leave)? 

The online users, whosoever got to know about the Facebook's psych experiment that took place for one week in 2012, wanted to know what other ways Facebook is manipulating their emotions and thinking process. When some tech blogs online, told the online consumers that Facebook tampered with the posting algorithm to place posts into user news feeds to study how this affected their mood, the anger became even more intense.

In short, many of these angry social media users, who themselves may be using emotions, using their common sense and some research, to get more likes for their content, got infuriated to find a data company of that colossal size as Facebook, doing the same. And instantly they shouted fraud. They may not be very wrong in doing that, going by the fact that any individual Facebook user or even a Facebook marketer will have at its disposal insignificant amount of intelligence or user behaviour data, compared to Facebook.

That said, the fact remains that no one likes anyone else to study their footprints online to derive primary and secondary inferences. Under this light, the study conducted by researchers affiliated with Facebook at Cornell University, and the University of California at San Francisco, appearing in the June 17, 2014 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, can agitate online users and consumers considerably.

What if Facebook starts manipulating you to buy some stuff you don't really want? or

What if Facebook takes money from some rival Government to destabilise the internal harmony of a country ? or

What if Facebook studies a Facebook user so well that it traces him/her anywhere on web, no matter how less the online footprint the user may have ?

are some of the most common fears.

When further details of the said Facebook study surfaced online -- where Facebook tampered with News Feed to influence emotions, to see if the number of positive, or negative, words in messages Facebook users read affected whether users then posted positive or negative content in their status updates -- the online users saw even more threat to their online presence and socializing. Indeed, after the Facebook emotional trigger exposure, the manipulated Facebook users began to use negative or positive words in their updates depending on what they were exposed to.

The said Facebook emotional trigger study, somehow proved that human beings are simple emotional creatures, when faced to manipulations. They may have complex emotions all the time, but it when comes to manipulation they can indeed be steered to a degree as per the objective of the manipulator.

Overall, human beings themselves may be acting manipulator of emotions themselves, but it appears that the scale of the manipulation is uneasy for them. They are used to a fellow human being analysing them every now and then; but they are surely uneasy when a Social Giant such as Facebook does so.

Facebook will be more careful while commissioning such studies in future. The mere tweaking of the instructions given to the researchers and objective of the study will save the Facebook from much controversy (if it doesn't want to get embroiled in). Just like humans, manipulation becomes palatable, if the person manipulated is not aware of it.

The Result of Facebook's emotional contagion in emotional contagion in Facebook Feeds study,

“Emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. Indicating that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks.”

The example closest to the transferring of emotions is the joy one feels at seeing a Facebook post , about one's favorite team win. The massive scale emotional contagion can thus explain why Arab Spring 2011 resulting in Egyptian Regime change of 2011, trended on Facebook and Twitter. Can the same be said for communal and other thoughts? BTW, whoever has their hands on user metadata will keep on studying them. Be it Facebook or some other Company. Although, the ethical questions will always be there. That's why Legal handle is used for such psych experiments.

Coming back to the user data , it's hard for an online company such as Facebook to distinguish between what it's selling and what is coming to it automatically during the sales process. The reason for this is : it actually is not selling anything. If one assumes that , it's indeed selling something directly or indirectly, then it can sell almost anything it's generating while running such intangible business. Understand, everything here is simply data. If a researcher at Facebook can infer certain intelligence by simply looking at a Facebook user's update, then he may see nothing wrong in deriving more inferences if more such data is at his disposal. After all everything here , is data.

Whether an online company which sits over truckloads of user data can research it or not, has come to fore once again. This time by a blog post by Online Dating Site OkCupid President Christian Rudder.

39 year-old Christian, is a Harvard mathematics graduate, with a passion to study the human attraction. Amidst the Facebook emotional experiment, Rudder told the World that they also research their User meta data; and since he dons dual roles of OkCupid President and its inhouse researcher; hence there's always a likelihood of the business making use of consumer data collected for one purpose and using it to extract meaning about a secondary theme. Something Facebook's emotional experiment did.  To help you understand this precarious position, he explains it as 'Conflict of Interest', where as a owner there's always a desire to benefit for the research. As a person who oversees OkCupid’s in-house research into the preferences of millions of its members; he does support the idea of online companies such as OkCupid sharing such insights with their users and the public. That's why he writes a blog with two objectives: To drive traffic to the dating site; and to amuse & invoke his members with their online behaviour, they never consciously payed attention to. Over time, he has published posts on why Latin men preferring Latinas or Black women receiving the least first messages is not racism. The title of the blogspot written during the Facebook experiment news, was to everyone's surprise, “We Experiment on Human Beings!”. An act , he defends even today, saying “if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site.”

But who wants to be a guinea pig. That apart, when most online users are weary of Facebook emotional experiment, then that perception will not be very wrong. After all there's concept called collective consciousness.

Now Mr. Rudder has written a new book, called “Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking)” (Crown), to be released this Tuesday. The book argues for a wider industry study of people’s online searches, social interactions, clicks, pics, posts and the like. The social science research Rudder shares in this book, can be different from what Google, Facebook and Microsoft already publishes on their portals, as the book chronicles Mr. Rudder's own experience at OkCupid.

Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking)
by: Christian Rudder
publisher: Crown, published: 2014-09-09
sales rank: 1561
price: $17.71

An audacious, irreverent investigation of human behavior—and a first look at a revolution in the making Our personal data has been used to spy on us, hire and fire us, and sell us stuff we don’t need. In Dataclysm, Christian Rudder uses it to show us who we truly are. For centuries, we've relied on polling or small-scale lab experiments to study human behavior. Today, a new approach is possible. As we live more of our lives online, researchers can finally observe us directly, in vast numbers, and without filters. Data scientists have become the new demographers. In this daring and original book, Rudder explains how Facebook "likes" can predict, with surprising accuracy, a person’s sexual orientation and even intelligence; how attractive women receive exponentially more interview requests; and why you must have haters to be hot. He charts the rise and fall of America’s most reviled word through Google Search and examines the new dynamics of collaborative rage on Twitter. He shows how people express themselves, both privately and publicly. What is the least Asian thing you can say? Do people bathe more in Vermont or New Jersey? What do black women think about Simon & Garfunkel? (Hint: they don’t think about Simon & Garfunkel.) Rudder also traces human migration over time, showing how groups of people move from certain small towns to the same big cities across the globe. And he grapples with the challenge of maintaining privacy in a world where these explorations are possible. Visually arresting and full of wit and insight, Dataclysm is a new way of seeing ourselves—a brilliant alchemy, in which math is made human and numbers become the narrative of our time. “I realized I could use the data to examine taboos like race by direct introspection,” Mr. Rudder writes, describing how he tapped into aggregated information about OkCupid members to examine online interactions between white men and black women. “The data was sitting right there on our servers. It was an irresistible social opportunity.”

This kind of limitless data-mining is possible because most sites, OkCupid included, have use policies that give them unfettered rights to harness users’ details for research and product improvement.
The book will be an interesting read. That one can Hope for.

The post today, may seem to you as a rambling sort of. It indeed is. As there are so many questioned involved in researching online user data , that it's difficult to make one conclusive view. In the technology world, the level of technology is the deciding factor. If some person, company or country has some technology which the user has not perception of, then any manipulation can go on. That's why more than legal this question is ethical. To what extent a researcher must research the user data he/she has collected.That too when no one is watching.

Or can a researcher be allowed to research any data without any boundaries. After all research helps the human race understand itself better. Does it?

No comments