Lately, news of the Facebook emotional contagion study and Facebook Messenger’s permissions, have flooded feeds and inboxes. The former was a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June 2014. The paper described an experiment where the algorithm controlling some users’ news feeds were altered to show more “happy” or “sad” posts. Then, the subsequent posts made by those users were tracked to determine if the emotional tone of their news feed affected the emotional tone of their produced content. The latter news story comes primarily from click-bait articles claiming that Facebook has “crossed the line” with its “new” messenger mobile application by requiring extraordinary permissions to users’ phones. While the list of permissions required for Facebook’s mobile messenger app is accurate, their descriptions are not. However, these articles have led to my news feed being inundated with declarations of boycotts and exclamations about the tyranny of Facebook.
I want to present a radically different perspective on Facebook. This isn’t to say that my friends and anthropologically minded colleagues have not raised important points about ethics, power, and control when it comes to the Internet. However, I feel that many discussions about Facebook (and other large web presences e.g. Google, OKcupid or Twitter) have largely become routine and tired in public social science. Each new feature, experiment, interface element, or app is discussed within tropes from tragic fairy tales. Facebook is portrayed as a big greedy dragon taking advantage of the peasants, stealing their data, and toying with their lives. The users are treated as peasants running about on fire, helpless as they wait for a hero who will never come.
Yes, the ethics of data collection and usage are important discussions. But, the framing of that discussion must step away from painting Facebook as evil and tyrannical and the user as helpless. This kind of narrative does little to aid problem solving. Rather, it exacerbates the problems by alienating the Internet’s creatives (whether they be the web designers of small businesses or the developers at Facebook) and creating paradoxical relationships between end users and developers that hinder fruitful discussions. Continue reading