I’ve been thinking about that Facebook study that got everyone up in arms about ethical breaches and whether or not manipulating people’s emotions is OK to do if they aren’t informed.

Of course, we all signed our whole lives away to whatever online company we have an account with (yes, even the services you pay for, that’s true,  just maybe a little less so). Living in the 21st century, by definition, by being connected almost means you’ll be giving up info. It’s like living in a small town; everyone knows everyone else’s business (whether they talk about it openly or not). So be as open or not as you like, just know that basically none of us will every be elected to public office or be employed ever again.

Well, maybe it’s not that dire. Our lives are complicated and messy and it’s a bit culturally unacceptable to show that to other people (I do have my levels of stories I’m willing to share and those things I keep to myself or only share with close friends who’ve earned the right to hear those stories).

What I want to talk about is some of the apparent discussion that the negatively manipulated people int the study were more negative and could have slid into depression or gotten even more depressed. I don’t think it quite works that way, and the data in the study was apparently quite a subtle effect, which makes sense…it is kinda not OK to not tell people you’re intentionally manipulating them, but absolutely not OK to radically manipulate someone so they harm themselves or others.

There’s a narrative that on social media, the only things we share are the best parts of ourselves, the awesome things we’re doing, our kids doing those kid things, cats, etc. However, it’s simply not true; people share all kinds of stuff on social media, some serious, some light-hearted, some dark, etc. Look at my Facebook or Twitter feed and it’s filled with rather depressive content (I still hate the thought that I may have contributed to someone’s negative mood because of it– one reason depression is hard to talk about is that most depressives I have known do not want to bring anyone else down, including professionials, not just friends…and so they (me!) keep to themselves, keep it inside).

In terms of this study, however, the thing that doesn’t resonate with me is the fact that the positively manipulated people showed an uptick in their positivity in things they said/shared. That may well be the case for a non-depressive. However, when I was most depressed, positive posts from friends and others actually made me feel worse. Even still, the positive aspects of social media really do have a negative impact. I see all my friends and things I’m interested in grow, change, do interesting things while I was (and still feel I am in some ways) stuck in the same plaec, same things day in, day out, incapable of those things being expressed to me in my friends’ experiences: love, laughing, enjoying life, all that. I’m genuinely happy for them being out experiencing the world, I just wish I could do that too; that I don’t feel such a prevalent feeling of being removed from the world even if I’m right there doing something myself. Maybe I’m experiencing things more now, but a lot of life still feels flat to me; I’m not pushing myself enough outside my comfort zone? Maybe I just need to leap more, analyze less.

So while yes, there’s a discussion to be had about boundaries and privacy and sharing in this information age, it’s not as if any of us (especially us ‘knowledge workers’) will get away with not using these online services to do our work (in this way, we’re having to become more like entertainers; people in the public eye, maybe there are things we can learn from them). The only solace I take right now is that algorithms are comically bad at getting ‘me’; if I buy a gift on Amazon– for someone else! I still get emails advertising that very product to me…hey Amazon, it was a gift I tried to be thoughtful about for another human who’s not me…not interested!…or even worse, I bought something and suddenly there’s an email advertising that thing to me…hey Amazon, I bought the thing you should know that, I don’t need 2 of it!.







Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

2 thoughts on “Facebook.”

  1. “when I was most depressed, positive posts from friends and others actually made me feel worse” – My point exactly. I don’t know if that makes me a terrible person but I just feel worse about myself during those times. :/
    The amazon bit is hilariously true.

    1. well, when I would respond that way, I did feel kind of like a terrible person. And glad you liked the bit about Amazon’s marketing tactics (or lack thereof?).

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