Why Facebook’s Emotional Testing Isn’t Just A/B Testing

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Much ink has rightly been spilled about the revelation that Facebook wanted to judge whether emotional states were affected and contagious in their most recent research on 600,000+ people. You can read more of the details here.

On social media, reactions have been mixed, from people calling it an outrage to people saying, “What’s the big deal, it’s just A/B testing, get over it”. This latter point is one worth digging into. A/B testing normally is used to optimize conversions and provide a way of understanding how your content performs. What’s different about what Facebook was doing deals more with professional ethics in research. As both Tom Webster and I have pointed out, many organizations in the research space have codes of ethics that give researchers guidelines about what they should and should not do. Here’s one from AAPOR, the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers, from section I A:

1. We shall avoid practices or methods that may harm, endanger, humiliate, or seriously mislead survey respondents or prospective respondents.

2. We shall respect respondents’ desires, when expressed, not to answer specific survey questions or provide other information to the researcher. We shall be responsive to their questions about how their contact information was secured.

3. Participation in surveys and other forms of public opinion research is voluntary, except for the decennial census and a few other government surveys as specified by law. We shall provide all persons selected for inclusion with a description of the research study sufficient to permit them to make an informed and free decision about their participation. We shall make no false or misleading claims as to a study’s sponsorship or purpose, and we shall provide truthful answers to direct questions about the research. If disclosure could substantially bias responses or endanger interviewers, it is sufficient to indicate that some information cannot be revealed or will not be revealed until the study is concluded.

Where Facebook fell down is on points 1 and 3. On point 3, yes, the Terms of Service permit them to legally do anything they want to their data and their users, but there’s a difference between implied consent buried in the Terms of Service and informed participation in a research study. All Facebook had to do would have been to put up a little header at the top of the News Feed to say, “Facebook would like you to participate in an emotional research study (click here for details), are you willing to participate? If so, click the Like button on this banner.”

The biggest part where Facebook fell down was on point 1. The difference between A/B testing the conversion rate of your website and intentionally altering peoples’ emotions positively or negatively is the impact of the potential outcome. If I succeed in manipulating your behavior to get you to buy X% more stuff, there’s moderate to low risk of me causing serious permanent harm to your life beyond financial impact. If I succeed in manipulating your emotions to make you sad and depressed, there’s a certain percentage of people – small, but non-zero – who will amplify that to the extreme of harming themselves or others.

That’s the difference between regular A/B testing and what Facebook’s experiment did wrong. I would wager a class action lawsuit will be on its way in no short order, and it’s deserved for an ethics violation that has had realistic potential to cause serious harm to participants of the study.


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Your social media insurance policy

Facebook is making life increasingly pay-to-play for marketers.
Google+ rolls out ads.
Twitter adds promoted accounts to the timeline.
LinkedIn rolls out sponsored posts.
Instagram rolls out ads.
Pinterest rolls out promoted pins.

Seeing a trend here? You should be. The social networks, having acquired their audiences, are now seeking to monetize their audiences, and if you don’t have wheelbarrows full of money to bring to the table, your seat at the table will be given to someone else who does. That’s life, and that’s entirely within their rights.

Repeat this maxim frequently: You own nothing in social media.

That Facebook Page? That Twitter profile? That Google+ account? You own none of it. Zero. Nada. These services are not public utilities. They are not endowed rights. They are private companies that provide fallible, owned services to us and in most cases, they do so at little cost to us. As such they can vanish at any time, temporarily or permanently, and we have little to no recourse. All of the hours and money you’ve invested in that Page, profile, or account can evaporate instantly. Ask anyone who dumped $50,000 into their MySpace profile how they feel about it now.

If all of the recent changes are making you feel uncomfortable about your social media future, I will suggest this very basic advice: you need a social media insurance policy. You need something that will future-proof you, that will provide you connectivity to your audience in case of failure, or worse, in case your favorite social network becomes too successful for you. That social media insurance policy is your email list. Start building an email list now from your social media audience. Encourage your followers / friends / fans / connections to sign up for your mailing list and then send them reminders via email of why you’re connected with them.

When the day comes that your favorite social media service sunsets, kicks you off, prices you out of the game, or just flat out fails at a mission critical time, you can take comfort in being able to hit the send button and circumvent the social system failure.

Buffer

Put a reminder on your calendar to ask every week, once a week, for your various audiences to subscribe to your mailing list. Give them good reason to by publishing an interesting email to them, but start building your email list as a social media insurance policy today. It’s the only thing you truly own, it’s the only thing that will help you stay in touch as you join new networks, and it’s the only thing that will let you get back in touch with your fans once your favorite social network decides you’re not wealthy enough for it any more.


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ICYMI: LinkedIn for Businesses and Brands Webinar

If you missed it yesterday, I had a chance thanks to SHIFT and Vocus to do a webinar on LinkedIn for Businesses and Brands. It was a lot of fun and I thank the nearly 2,000 people who signed up for it – talk about a packed house. If you missed it, were unable to stay for all of it, or the audio sounded like I was on a Starfleet Deep Space star base near the entrance of a wormhole, then I’m pleased to let you know that the recording is available in glorious high-fidelity video with an associated MP3.

Linkedin Webinar - YouTube
Click to go to the landing page where I ask you to fill out a form

Enjoy it, and for those who left such positive feedback, thank you for your kind words.


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