Magazine article Information Today

Oh, Facebook

Magazine article Information Today

Oh, Facebook

Article excerpt

If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold.

--blue_beetle (MetaFilter), Aug. 26, 2010

We've all, more or less, come to terms with the fact that the price for all of these "free" online services--email, apps, social networks, etc.--is having all manner of advertising shoveled our way. Most of us have learned to tune it out--except, perhaps, for those creepy ads that follow you around the internet, like if you've looked at a pair of shoes on Zappos, and you keep seeing ads for them on other sites you visit. Online tracking is ... unsettling, but there are ways of making it stop (

Dubious Ethics

You probably already knew, at least on some level, that your internet use has basically turned you into a laboratory animal. Entities of all sorts--benign and not so benign--are interested in observing what you do online. In late June, there was quite the uproar when it was revealed that researchers, including some at Facebook, had tinkered with the newsfeed content of hundreds of thousands of Facebook's users in order to experiment with mood manipulation. Apparently, this came to light after the results of this study, "Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks," were published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

In "Everything We Know About Facebook's Secret Mood Manipulation Experiment" ( Kai), an interesting analysis of the study and its resulting outcry, Robinson Meyer, an associate editor at The Atlantic, says the study was "almost certainly legal," since the Facebook terms of service includes a provision that allows users' data to be employed in "data analysis, testing, [and] research." The experiment's ethics, on the other hand, are debatable, and Meyer does an excellent job of rounding up a variety of pros and cons, as well as questioning the significance of the study's findings.

For its part, PNAS saw fit to publish an "Editorial Expression of Concern" ( 10779.1.full) that concluded:

      Based on the information
   provided by the authors, PNAS
   editors deemed it appropriate
   to publish the paper. It is nevertheless
   a matter of concern
   that the collection of the data
   by Facebook may have involved
   practices that were not
   fully consistent with the principles
   of obtaining informed
   consent and allowing participants
   to opt out.

Know the Risks

And, of course, you could count on at least one politician seizing the opportunity to generate some publicity from the kerfuffle. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) says, "I come from the technology world, and I understand that social media companies are looking for ways to extract value from the information willingly provided by their huge customer base. I don't know if Facebook's manipulation of users' news feeds was appropriate or not. But I think many consumers were surprised to learn they had given permission by agreeing to Facebook's terms of service. And I think the industry could benefit from a conversation about what are the appropriate rules of the road going forward."

My take? …

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