David Weinberger has a great op-ed on CNN.com titled “When is Facebook NOT messing with your head?” on the recent “psychological experiment” controversy. My feelings are exactly the same that he expresses:
So, I’m upset about Facebook’s cavalier toying with our emotions, but I’m far more disturbed about what Facebook and other such sites do all the time.
And his analysis is spot-on:
Facebook … makes decisions about what we’ll know about our friends based on what works for Facebook, Inc., and only secondarily based on what works for us as individuals and as a society.
If you think about it, Facebook is incredibly incentivized to make sure we hear what our friends have to say, if that — directly or indirectly — increases Facebook’s revenue. And they are incredibly dis-incentivized to deliver what our friends might say that — directly or indirectly — decreases their revenue. The flood of information they could be delivering is too strong already, so they need to drop news before it gets to us, guess what they will drop and what they won’t?
In stark terms: dear Facebook customer, say whatever you like, but it may be that your friends will never hear it unless it makes us money, in which case all your friends and their friends will hear it from every rooftop. And our investors will be happy. No, we aren’t sharing with our users either.
How strong is the manipulation? I don’t know. It would be rather interesting to measure it, not sure anybody has done that, and it would be hard thing to do. But make no mistake, they do manipulate the information flow between us and our friends, and between us and the world at large (otherwise they wouldn’t have a business! Or least not their current business.)
So what does David suggest?
I don’t know the answer, but it can’t come from a commercial entity whose overriding aim is to keep us coming back so we can buy more from its advertisers.
Exactly. A company’s goal must be to make their users happy first and everybody else second. Often, a very distant second. If we don’t demand that from our vendors, it’s like we walk into the store with a big sign “please manipulate me”. I’ve had enough of that kind of nonsense.