Farewell Facebook

Yet another reaction to Facebook’s latest stunt

Ever since I learned that Facebook had used people’s news streams to perform an experiment without seeking participants’ permission, I’ve been angry. Not all the time. Just when I think about Facebook, read about Facebook, or think about the journal that published the research report. That the publication is the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and that the article asserts that a broad user agreement constitutes informed consent astounds me.

There are protocols to follow when doing research with humans. They are more about behaving ethically and protecting research participants from potential harm than they are about legal issues. The argument that Facebook’s user agreement serves as informed consent and gives it permission to manipulate people’s news feeds doesn’t counter the fact that Facebook failed to follow established ethical practices for social science research. I had thought that we were well beyond the era of the Tuskegee experiments and Stanley Milgram. I guess not.

This isn’t a trivial issue. People’s moods and emotions affect their lives, regardless of whether the stimulus for those emotions occurs in the real world or the virtual world. In fact, that’s the point of Facebook’s research. All those bits, bytes, and pixels prompt people to take action in the real world.

Daniel Goleman has been writing extensively this past year about the impact that our moods and emotions have on our work. I’ve been deeply struck by a few key points. Although we talk about emotional self-regulation, our emotions are regulated through our interactions with others. We’re hard-wired, so to speak, to be social. Goleman explains this more clearly than I can:

A growing body of research on the human brain proves that, for better or worse, leaders’ moods affect the emotions of the people around them. The reason for that lies in what scientists call the open-loop nature of the brain’s limbic system — our emotional center. …an open-loop system depends on external sources to manage itself. In other words, we rely on connections with other people to determine our moods. The open-loop limbic system was a winning design in evolution because it let people come to one another’s emotional rescue — enabling a mother, for example, to soothe her crying infant. …The open-loop design serves the same purpose today as it did thousands of years ago. [fromUnderstanding the Science of Moods at Work,” Leadership & Management (blog), LinkedIn, February 9, 2014, https://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20140209232115-117825785-understanding-the-science-of-moods-at-work?trk=mp-reader-card.]

We take our moods with us wherever we go. The common-sense belief is that a positive attitude is an essential ingredient for success. Suppose I was one of those people with increased negative material in my news feed. I’m primed now for negative moods and emotions. What opportunities will I miss at work? Will my mood ripple through my co-workers? If it does, what innovations might we fail to come up with? Or, if my next interaction is with my partner or child, what then?

I fantasize about a class action lawsuit. But how can you make a fair assessment of damages based on potential what-ifs and possibly missed opportunities? At minimum, Facebook needs to establish a research review board with users as the majority of members. It also needs to subscribe to established ethical practices for conducting social science research. Journals that publish the kind of research that Facebook conducted need to rethink their practices as well. The scientists themselves need to remind themselves and reflect about the relevant ethical standards.

In the end, all emotions and moods are local—inside of me. I’m committed to practicing emotional intelligence, so although I experience my emotions and moods as valuable information, most of the time I don’t let them drive my actions. I’m also committed to making my best effort to contribute to and support positive group culture throughout my life. I don’t see these values as a comfortable fit with Facebook at this point.

So, farewell Facebook. I will miss all my friends and family who I interact with there. For now, you can find me on Google+, where I hope the news feed is more in my own control.

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