A few days ago, the US supreme court ruled that same-sex marriage was hence forth legal in all states. To mark the occasion, Facebook released the “Celebrate Pride” tool which overlays a low-opacity rainbow over your profile pic. More than a million people changed their profile photos just a couple of hours after the feature was integrated into the Facebook. While its intentions might seem noble, Cesar Hidalgo – an MIT network scientists – doesn’t buy it. He says it’s all in fact a huge social experiment whose end game is to see how long it takes for you to change your profile pic to something else.
“This is probably a Facebook experiment!” said the MIT network scientist Cesar Hidalgo on Facebook yesterday.
“The question is, how long will it take for people to change their profile pictures back to normal.”
Other researchers seem to have caught on as well.
“This is one Facebook study I want to be included in!” wrote Stacy Blasiola, a communications Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois, when she changed her profile.
Facebook has denied the claim, however.
“This was not an experiment or test, but rather something that enables people to show their support of the LGBTQ community on Facebook. ”
“The point of this tool is not to get information about people.”
That may be true, but it’s entirely plausible that the enormously valuable data Facebook gets to index after the whole Celebrate Pride movement fades away will be used to learn more about user behavior. Actually, Facebook will definitely use this information. The question is whether the company purposely put the tool forward with this particular goal in mind.
We might never learn, but it’s not like this is would be the first time Facebook did something like this. Only a couple of months ago Facebook actually published a study in which it analyzed the factors that predicted support for marriage equality on Facebook. Basically, the researchers looked at what prompted a user to change his or her profile photo to the red equals sign. The implications were much broader, though: it offered a great starting material to see how users rally on facebook and collective activity permeates the social network. That’s pretty powerful information. Just replace marriage equality with social unrest or political sympathy.
An important finding from the study was that users with more friends were more likely to change their profile pic to the equals sign. It wasn’t clear though whether this change of the profile pic was prompted by the exposure to more similar posts, given the user has more friends, or the user already had friends with similar views.
Nothing came close to the public outcry which ensued last year, though. It was revealed that Facebook intentionally manipulated the newsfeed of more than 700,000 users to basically toy with their emotions. The aim was to see if highlighting positive or negative posts could change the mood of the user. It did. People were more likely to post negative updates about their lives after positive posts in their Facebook feeds had been purposefully reduced by the researchers. No user was aware he was taking part in massive social experiment. Why act so surprised? Haven’t you read Facebook’s mile-long TOS? They’re legally allowed to do it.
Anyway, it’s not like this is something ground breaking in itself. Facebook is tracking your behavior based on what you like, browse or comment for ages, then uses this information to target better ads and, some say, sell it to companies. Some people have their whole lives up on facebook. Those are really worth a lot.