This week, Facebook found itself in ethical hot water (again) for messing around with user News Feeds. Technology experts were the first to cry foul, but secretly many of them were probably salivating over the results.
The Facebook News Feed is the most popular way for users to share information. Login to Facebook and you’ll find the most recent posts from friends, pages you like and groups you follow.
In other words, the News Feed is the heart of Facebook’s body.
Forget for the moment that the study was probably illegal. Forget for a second that researchers from Facebook, Cornell University and the University of California at San Francisco manipulated the moods of nearly 700,000 users. Instead, let’s focus on what they discovered.
Want to read the study? Go to http://www.pnas.org/content/111/24/8788.full.pdf
What the researchers uncovered about the emotional states of users on social media was pretty amazing. Aside from lab experiments, there hasn’t been research reported that tapped into these feelings until now.
What did they find? Many things, but the most interesting result was the discovery that using social media does, in fact, alter our emotional state. By manipulating users’ Facebook News Feeds, the researchers found support for something called an “emotional contagion.”
Emotional contagion is the transfer of an emotional state from one person to another. Much like a cold is contagious and transferred to others, we can pass along emotions from one person to the next.
People transfer positive and negative emotions to others every day, and in a variety of settings – work, school, home – usually without the other person even knowing it’s happening. If my wife’s in a bad mood, I’ll probably end up in a bad mood.
But now we know that, the transfer of emotions can happen without direct interaction with others, and without nonverbal cues (seeing someone smile, for example).
How did the researchers know they found Facebook’s emotional contagion? It’s really quite simple. When Facebook reduced the number of positive News Feed posts that appeared on a user’s Feed, the number of positive status updates made by the user decreased while negative updates increased. But when Facebook reduced negative News Feed posts, the number of negative status updates decreased and the number of positive updates increased.
Most status updates in our News Feeds contain content not necessarily “directed” at other users. Most of the time, those status updates are just about us. We’re letting the world know what we’re up to, and what we’re thinking.
Say someone posts a negative rant about U.S. politics. That post might lead other users to post negative status updates. Or, we might click the “thumbs up” button to signal a like, but really we’re saying “yes, this makes me angry, too!”
But some posts put us in a good mood. Take Father’s Day for example. Every other status update on that Sunday included pictures of kids with their dads, some grainy photos fishing on the banks of Lake Glacier or sitting at a Scrappers game on a Sunday afternoon.
These posts were equally contagious. Sure, some people probably felt the urge to celebrate their fathers. Still, I can’t help but wonder how many users posted good things about dad, in part, because of Facebook’s emotional contagion.
So, the next time you post that feel-good update about a run-in with an old friend, a funny cat picture, or your kid’s dance recital, remember that your message might be putting other people in a better mood.
It is highly unlikely this study will ever be replicated because, after all, it’s unethical to manipulate unwilling participants. Still, it would be fascinating to see similar studies of Twitter, YouTube, and other major social media platforms to see if our posts and videos are as emotionally contagious as our Facebook posts.
~ Dr. Adam Earnheardt is chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn and Facebook at www.facebook.com/adamearn
~ A version of this post appeared in The Vindicator, Sunday, July 6, 2014 in a section entitled "Connected." My thanks to Todd Franko and The Vindicator staff for publishing my thoughts.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is associate professor and chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA. He researches and writes about social media and technology, sports and fans.