Recently, news that Facebook had set out to manipulate the emotions of more than 700,000 unwitting "psychological study subjects" (read: its users) in an effort to better understand how they respond to certain content and, in turn, better monetize said users, set off a firestorm about who owns what, when, and how. Are we just finger-tapping pawns in their giant hive machine? Are we being taken for a ride on that Great Monetizing Ferris Wheel, being flipped upside-down until every last penny falls from our pockets?
Probably, says Ken Doctor at the Neiman Journalism Lab. Facebook and Google, he notes —which now control 49 percent of the $50 billion U.S. digital ad market and about 68 percent of the $32 billion global mobile ad sector — are also in the business of customer mind control. From Doctor:
That market power is a big concern, but the two recent mind games that have surfaced (are there more?) raise greater questions. As odious as the NSA’s spying on Americans (and everyone else) has been, the potential implications of mood control strategies could be far larger. Sensory manipulation is no longer sci-fi; Aldous Huxley’s soma is going digital. What was the Facebook experiment on us about: gauging the power of “emotional contagion through social networks.” Imagine the uproar if Fox News or MSNBC had done that, or politicians.
Rob Horning at the New Inquiry also explores how the mood-manpulation study is of serious concern, but takes it one step further to ask: As continuous participants in Facebook—which is expected to take in $4.8 billion in digital ad revenue this year alone—to what extent are we not only potential study subjects for advertisers, but also unwaged labor?
Until two years ago, Facebook didn't have digital ad revenue. But only a year later after going public, in 2013, it controlled 15.8 percent of all internet ad revenue shares. And, as Horning notes, Facebook and its ad revenue exist solely because of the content its users provide. From Horning:
Facebook takes our friends’ efforts to communicate with us and turns them into an entertainment product meant to make Facebook money....
Getting you to be a more profitable user for the company is only a matter of affective optimization, a matter of tweaking your programming to get you pay more attention, spend more time on site, share more, etc...
Facebook has incentive to make us feel like consumers of its service because that may distract us from the way in which our contributions to the network constitute unwaged labor.
What do you think? Do you feel like you are being manipulated or used by social media? Share your thoughts in the comments.