We can’t help but check Facebook, even though studies suggest it can trigger feelings of envy, worsen our self-esteem, and make us feel lonely. Beyond the emotional, some studies link spending time on Facebook to eating disorders.
But maybe we’re focusing too much on the negative. It turns out that positive emotions have stronger spreading power on Facebook than negative ones, according to new research published in PLOS ONE. James Fowler, a professor of medical genetics and political science at University of California San Diego, has worked on previous social contagion studies, and found that things like obesity, smoking habits, happiness, loneliness, eating disorders, and even generosity spread among groups of friends. But in those cases, the participants had face-to-face contact with each other. “I had an expectation that we might not find [the same effect] online,” he says.
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He was wrong. Indeed, emotions spread across Facebook in the same way that we share secrets or dating tips–to a surprising extent, Fowler says. Analyzing data from 100 million Facebook users who posted nearly one billion updates between 2009 and 2012, Fowler and his colleagues showed that every emotion expressed online seeded one to two additional messages in the network expressing similar emotions, meaning the feeling was getting passed along. (Don’t worry, the scientists did not have access to any identifying information, and they didn’t even read the posts. They put the messages through a standard word classification system that coded the written words on a scale that ranged from negative to positive.)
Previous studies have linked rain to more negative feelings and thoughts, so Fowler and his team correlated rainfall to the emotional content of people’s messages. They could then determine whether a sunny day for one friend and a rainy day for another who lived miles away had any effect on their emotions. Indeed, if a friend is experiencing a sunny day and you’re deluged by rain, you’re more likely to feel a little happier – and express that in more positive posts. Contrary to the belief that Facebook makes us feel bad, the study showed that each additional positive post reduced the number of negative ones by friends by nearly two-fold, while each additional negative update lowered positive posts by 1.3 times. Though people may think of the Facebook experience as more negative than positive, overall, says Fowler, the data suggest that being on the social networking site is a positive thing, at least for our emotional state.
“The online world has opened up the possibility that we are spreading emotions in a way they were never spread before,” Fowler says. “We are connected to our friend’s friends, to our friend’s friend’s friends, who are strangers in some cases, and while it’s possible that those interactions are just noise, that’s not what we found.”
But the trend also holds a potential dark side. “As we become more connected online, we are now experiencing emotions more like the emotions that people around the planet experience,” he says. That means that more people are more likely to be feeling the same emotion at the same time, potentially leading to higher highs and lower lows, and that may contribute to more volatility in several different arenas, from the social to the economic and political, since markets and politics are influenced by emotions. If people aren’t as connected, these emotional extremes can balance each other out: if you’re having a bad day, but you come home to family members who have had better days, you tend to feel better. But if more people in the world are feeling the same emotion at the same time, such equilibrium might be harder to achieve.
That, says Fowler, could be the subject of yet another social network experiment. If people become aware of how much their own emotions can have a ripple effect on Facebook, and the rest of the world, for instance, would they change their behavior and take more responsibility for what they express online? No man is an island, it seems, but Fowler argues that every man may be part of an archipelago, and social networks may help us understand how our interactions with others connect link us together to influence and change our behavior.