Facebook’s ‘experiment’ isn’t evil, it’s just marketing 101

Facebook is taking a lot of heat after revelations that it conducted experiments with user’s social network newsfeeds. The outrage is unjustified, though. All Facebook really did is AB testing. It’s Marketing 101, and it’s used by a variety of industries for various purposes.

First, a little background on Facebook’s transgressions. According to a study posted in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers used about 700,000 Facebook accounts as social guinea pigs for a psychological experiment. The Facebook researchers intentionally altered the newsfeeds of the users to display either predominantly positive or predominantly negative posts in an attempt to determine the emotional and psychological impact of positive or negative stimuli on the individuals who read those posts. The net result is that researchers determined that there is an effect, and that the more positive posts in a users newsfeed, the more positive their own posts and comments would subsequently be, and vice versa.

Now, back to the outrage…

I get it on one level. Nobody likes to be used unwittingly for an experiment. Facebook’s experiment is perhaps particularly heinous in that the subjects of the experiment may have had their moods negatively altered, and found themselves to be in an unexplainably crappy mood during the experiment. That aura of negativity could have carried over to their interactions with work or family, and had consequences–possibly even long lasting repurcussions–beyond just being pissed off at some friends on Facebook.

Let’s set down the torches and pitch forks for a second, though, and consider the fact that we are subject to similar experimentation daily from a variety of industries. The medical / pharmaceutical industry uses AB test groups–with one getting the real drug being tested, and others receiving a useless placebo–as a routine process for determining the efficacy and potential side effects of medications being developed. Granted, patients know they’re participating in a test program, and they’re aware that they may get either the actual drug or the placebo, but the concept is the same–messing with people for the purposes of figuring out what works.

AB testing is also a major element of marketing and Web design. Companies produce multiple ads–often aired on the same TV or radio stations, or printed within the same magazine–and track which ones capture the attention of the intended audience, and produce the desired results. Web designers will often create multiple versions of a website with different layouts or themes in order to determine which one is most appealing to the audience, and generates the most user interaction. Trying out multiple methods and messages, and honing in on the ones that are most effective is just simple Marketing 101.

Facebook is a social network of over a billion users. It is also a conduit for marketing, and it has a vested interest in being able to help companies that advertise on Facebook refine their messaging, and position posts within the newsfeed, or elsewhere on the Facebook page where they will have the highest probability of capturing attention and triggering action by the intended audience. To that end, it is in Facebook’s interests to understand the ebb and flow of the emotional impact the newsfeed has, and how to manipulate moods to produce the desired results.

Where I agree with the backlash is that I would rather not have any algorithm managing my newsfeed. I just want to see all of the posts from all my friends and/or the pages I like chronologically in the order they were posted. I don’t really want Facebook deciding which posts to show me at all in the first place–never mind choosing to display only positive or only negative posts in an attempt to alter my mood.

Experimentation aside, though, this just isn’t that big of a deal. What Facebook did is no different than General Motors airing two different radio ads to figure out which one works, or the grocery store playing music designed to put you in a buying mood, and placing the brands and products they want you to purchase at eye level. It’s just how things are done.

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