THE BLOG

Don't Fear Facebook's Mood Manipulation Study

22/07/2014 10:53 BST | Updated 20/09/2014 10:59 BST

Facebook is unlikely to look back with fond memories on the last fortnight, thanks to the still unfolding scandal surrounding its controversial "emotional contagion" experiment.

Leading the backlash, a Dutch creative agency has launched a rival mood study in response (99 Days of Freedom) calling on Facebook users to quit the network temporarily and see if they're better off without it. At the time of writing, more than 23,000 people have signed up.

The social network is facing an investigation by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) into whether its study breached data protection laws in the UK so the debate looks unlikely to die down anytime soon. But was the study really as sinister as many are making out? I think not.

The research, conducted during one week in January 2012, involved Facebook manipulating news feeds of almost 700,000 of its users to see if a reduction in negative or positive content changed posting behaviour. It found decreasing the number of negative posts led users to produce more positive, and fewer negative words. In itself, this is not that surprising and more about measurement than genuine psychological manipulation.

Running tests on consumers to improve products and services is nothing new in the business world. In fact, it's widespread. Facebook and other big sites conduct experiments on their users every day, using data to improve their product as well as the user experience.

When I was a digital marketing manager at Myspace, we tested and optimised the product and content regularly to make the site more appealing and keep users as active as possible. In 2008 we conducted research to help us to understand various niche communities or tribes on Myspace, and how they could be leveraged to increase advertising revenue, so the #FacebookExperiment is relatively insignificant.

Facebook has long been manipulating our news feeds to alter our user experience. We already know that each time we log in, Facebook's algorithms are determining what 300 posts to show out of a possible 1,500, based on our network relationships, click history and other factors. In reality, the #FacebookExperiment is little more than website optimisation.

The real mistake Facebook made with this study was not being upfront about it from the start. If it had been public opt-in with a control group to compare against, the story would have been about the findings, not the furore.

Those writing Facebook off need to remember that sign-ups for 99 Days of Freedom represent a tiny fraction of Facebook's users - something like 0.004%. And instead of seeing Facebook activity falling as a result of the scandal, it's now at record highs thanks to the World Cup.

For the overwhelming majority of users, the story has had little or no effect on their Facebook usage or sentiment towards the site.

There will always be a vocal minority professing the death of Facebook but, in reality, this is nonsense. It's too good a communication tool for everyone to ditch it overnight.