TIME Social Media

Calm Down: Facebook Isn’t Manipulating Your Emotions

Yes, they played with your News Feeds. Yes, that’s creepy. But here’s why you shouldn’t be so shocked and upset

Have you heard that you might have been Facebook’s guinea pig? That the company, working with some scientists, fiddled around with 698,003 people’s News Feeds in January 2012 and tried to make the users feel sadder (or happier) by manipulating what members read?

Shocked? Violated? Creeped out? Well, be prepared to be even more shocked, violated and creeped out. Because what Facebook did was scientifically acceptable, ethically allowable and, let’s face it, probably among the more innocuous ways that you’re being manipulated in nearly every aspect of your life.

First things first. The researchers didn’t “make” users feel sadder or happier. What they did was make it more or less likely for them to see posts that contained either slightly more negative language or slightly more positive language. Overall, those who had emotionally charged messages hidden from their News Feed used fewer words when posting, and those who did see emotional words tended to reflect the tone of their feeds when they posted. But there’s a difference between using, as the study found, one more negative word per 1,000 in a week of posts, and what psychologists would call feeling sad or depressed.

Adam Kramer of Facebook, one of the study’s co-authors, posted on an apology of sorts, for the way the study was presented. “My co-authors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused,” he wrote.

But the study is not without value, says Dr. Nicholas Christakis, director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University who has studied emotional contagion across social networks. “The scientific concerns that have been raised are mostly without merit,” he says. He points out that while the positivity or negativity of words may not be a validated measure of mood, the fact that the study found similar effects in both directions – people were affected in similar ways when the number of negative and positive words were manipulated in their feeds – suggests emotional contagion on social media is, indeed, real.

Concerns about people’s privacy being violated by the experiment may also be unwarranted. First, Facebook users know that their data is no longer exclusively their own once it’s on the site. And the whole premise of News Feed is that it’s a curated glance at the most appealing or engaging updates your network of friends might post. That’s why the Cornell University Institutional Review Board (IRB), which reviews and approves all human research studies conducted by its members, gave the experiment the green light. They determined that the study posed minimal risk of disrupting people’s normal environments or behavior, and therefore waived the need for getting informed consent from each participant (something that IRBs routinely do for studies involving medical records, prison records and educational information as long as the scientists maintain the anonymity of the owners of the data).

Should the 698,003 users have been told once the study was done? Perhaps, but only out of courtesy, and not for any legal or ethical reasons. “Certain items weren’t shown to people in their News Feed,” says James Fowler, professor of medical genetics and political science at University of California San Diego, who has collaborated with Christakis and has spoken with Facebook about the company’s research. “This sounds like something that happens to people ordinarily. As a consequence, I’m having a hard time understanding why people are so upset.”

“Things that happen to you that you aren’t aware of can be scary to people,” says Fowler. That could explain why, despite the fact that Fowler and Christakis conducted a similar intervention by seeding Facebook users’ accounts with messages from friends asking them to vote at an election, they weren’t accused of manipulating people in the same way. “It’s fascinating to me that everyone is piling on [this study] when we have already done it,” Fowler says of tweaking people’s social network to see how it influences their reactions.

It’s not that anyone condones the fact that we’re being studied and analyzed all the time (the fact that you clicked on this story was recorded by this site’s administrators, as well as how long you’re taking to read it to see if posts like these are appealing).

But if social networks are here to stay, and if, as many intriguing studies suggest, they do have some influence on the way we act and think, then it’s worth trying to figure out how they do it.

“I wouldn’t want the public outcry to shut down the science,” says Fowler. “I would much rather study it and understand it than stick my head in the sand and avoid the issue altogether.”

TIME Companies

Katy Perry’s Movie Is Streaming Directly on Facebook Now

Katy Perry
Katy Perry performs on stage on the second night of her Prismatic World Tour at Odyssey Arena on May 8, 2014 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Christie Goodwin—Getty Images

Facebook wants to start selling movies to its billion-plus user base. The social network began renting Katy Perry’s 2012 documentary Katy Perry: Part of Me directly on the pop star’s Facebook fan page Friday. The movie costs $4 to be rented for 48 hours and can be watched within the Facebook site itself.

A robust rental service would put Facebook in competition with video platforms like YouTube, Hulu, Netflix and the iTunes Store. Facebook tops all of them in size, but it’s not known as a destination to watch long-form video. Several movie studios experimented with renting films such as The Dark Knight and The Big Lebowski via Facebook in 2011, but the initiative never gained traction.

So far the social network hasn’t made much of an effort to nab new releases, instead focusing on well-worn catalog titles. But Facebook’s video ambitions have increased significantly in the past three years. The company began testing auto-playing video ads late last year, and movie trailers in particular are expected to be a popular use case for the new ad unit.

TIME Social Media

How Facebook Knows What Television Show You’re Watching Right Now

Images of WhatsApp As Facebook Inc. Makes Acquisition For $19 Billion
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Facebook wants to make it easier for users to share what they’re listening to or watching. The company today announced an update to its mobile app that will allow Facebook to automatically detect what song, movie or TV show a user is listening to or watching. The new feature, which is optional, makes use of the microphones in users’ smartphones to identify the content. Think of it like the music ID app Shazam being incorporated right into Facebook’s interface.

“If you want to share that you’re listening to your favorite Beyoncé track or watching the season premiere of Game of Thrones, you can do it quickly and easily, without typing,” the company said in a release. If users post a song to their timelines using this feature, their friends will be able to hear a 30-second snippet of the track. Posts of TV shows will identify the season and episode of the show.

The new feature could help Facebook attract more conversations about live television events, an area where competitor Twitter excels. The feature will also, of course, give Facebook even more valuable data about the habits and interests of its users. However, the sound data gathered to identify the correct song or TV show won’t be stored by Facebook, the company says.

TIME Advertising

Ad for New Social Network Mocks the Sheer Idiocy of Social Networks

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If you have ever had a sincere, real-life conversation about which Instagram filter to select for a photo or how your Twitter followers will receive a specific tweet, you will recognize the self-absorbed characters in the ad above. The commercial, which lampoons our narcissistic obsession with social networks, is pitching…another new social network. The new app, called State, bills itself as a “global opinion network” where people can easily share one or two-word takes about celebrities, politicians or current events. This brevity will apparently be easier and more authentic than trying to craft a hilarious tweet or a powerful Facebook rant about a given topic. We’ll see whether the startup’s premise catches on, but the company has already perfectly captured the way that fretting over your online presence can force you to miss out on the real world moments happening right before your eyes.

TIME technology

Facebook Considering Another Try in China

Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg compares the Facebook platform for mobile developers to iOS, Android and Windows Phone at the f8 conference in San Francisco on April 30, 2014 Erin Lubin -- Bloomberg / Getty Images

Facebook seems to be once again setting its sights on the People’s Republic. The social network is reportedly planning to open a sales office in China within the next year, according to Bloomberg. Facebook, like many American Internet companies, has been banned in mainland China for several years, but the company has expressed interest in regaining a foothold in the market.

Facebook already has an office in Hong Kong, where it works with companies in China to advertise their wares and services outside of the country. “Because of the rapid growth these businesses are achieving by using Facebook, we are of course exploring ways that we can provide even more support locally and may consider having a sales office in China in the future,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an email.

China is a tempting target that’s been very difficult for Silicon Valley to hit. Strict censorship laws in the country clash with the free speech policies that many tech companies espouse. About 13 percent of all social media posts in China are censored, according to one Harvard University study, and social networks are expected to self-police their users to ensure they are not violating Chinese law. Google, Facebook and Twitter are all blocked in the country, but LinkedIn recently reached a deal to launch a Chinese version of its site and abide by the country’s censorship policies.

The upshot for Facebook, should it choose to enter China, is huge. Asia is already the social network’s largest market, with 390 million monthly active users at the end of March. However, Facebook generated just $0.93 in revenue per user in Asia during the first quarter of 2014, compared to $5.85 per user in the U.S. and Canada and $2.44 per user in Europe. An office in Beijing could help the company better monetize its quickly growing user base across the Pacific.

TIME technology

Twitter Gives You a Way to Shut Up Your Talkative Friends

The social network will let users "mute" messages from other users on their timelines without the muted person's knowledge, thereby avoiding the awkward process of having to unfollow, or put up with, your extremely talkative IRL friends

Twitter rolled out new feature Monday to let users better manage the deluge of tweets they receive.

Users can now “mute” people they follow, removing those people’s tweets and retweets from their own timelines. The muted person won’t know that he or she has been silenced. It’s a stealthy way to read less content from certain users without having to unfollow them. A person can easily be muted or unmuted at any time, Twitter said in a blog post.

“Mute gives you even more control over the content you see on Twitter by letting you remove a user’s content from key parts of your Twitter experience,” the company said.

Though Twitter had been experimenting with the feature in recent weeks, it announced Monday that muting will be available to all users of the company’s iOS and Android apps, as well as the Twitter.com website. Some other Twitter applications, like TweetDeck, already allowed muting.

The feature is part of Twitter’s overall strategy to make its service more accessible to a wider range of people. Following a successful initial public offering, Twitter’s stock has tumbled in recent months as investors worry about the social network’s ability to attract new users. CEO Dick Costolo vowed that Twitter would make changes to its interface this year to make it easier to understand and manage. The company overhauled user profile pages in April as part of this effort.

TIME Companies

Here’s Twitter’s Next Enormous Headache

Social Media Site Twitter Debuts On The New York Stock Exchange
Getty Images

Twitter’s quickly falling stock may face even more downward pressure Tuesday when about 470 million shares are eligible to enter the open market for the first time. Today marks the end of the lock-up period in which early investors, executives and other Twitter insiders are barred from offloading their stock. Less than 20 percent of Twitter’s total stock has been publicly traded to this point.

The company has taken measures to ensure that the flood of shares doesn’t decimate its stock price. In an April SEC filing, Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey, along with CEO Dick Costolo, said they would not sell their shares after the lock-up ends. Between them they own 87.6 million shares. Venture firm Benchmark Capital, which owns more than 31 million shares, has also agreed not to sell. In total, people who own about 205 million of the locked up shares have said they will hold onto them, according to Bloomberg.

Still, that leaves more than 260 million shares potentially entering the stock market Tuesday, at a time when investors are decidedly cool on the social network. After a highly successful November IPO and an initial two-month rally that sent the company’s stock above $70, Twitter shares have fallen back to Earth in 2014 as investors fret over the social network’s user growth and engagement rates that are declining by some metrics. The stock closed at a record low last Wednesday and was trading around $39 as of 11 a.m. Monday.

Past lock-up expirations have not been kind to tech companies. Facebook, which also struggled post-IPO, saw its shares hit an all-time low when the company insiders got their first chance to sell in August 2012.

TIME social

Twitter Reportedly Tests a Mute Button for Politely Ignoring People

An experimental feature would keep excessive tweets from clogging your feed.

Twitter is reportedly experimenting with a “mute” button, which would let you follow someone without seeing their posts in your feed.

The mute button is apparently just a test for now, appearing for at least a couple of people within Twitter’s iPhone app. Twitter acknowledged last fall that it’s been running more experiments, but there’s no word on whether mute will launch for everyone.

Mute would be helpful for whenever someone you follow is getting too noisy. While you can always just unfollow that person, doing so would prevent you from exchanging direct messages, and may also just come off as rude, especially if it’s a friend or family member. Some third-party apps, such as TweetDeck and Tweetbot, have their own mute buttons, but because those apps aren’t available on every platform, there’s no good way to mute someone across all your devices.

Last December, Twitter flirted with mute functionality by changing the way blocking worked, so that blocked users would still be able to view, reply and retweet whatever you wrote. The backlash was so strong that Twitter quickly reversed its policy. This only solidified the need for a separate mute button, so hopefully the feature will graduate from the lab soon.

TIME Technologizer

Facebook Wants to Do to Mobile Apps What It Did to the Web, and That’s O.K.

Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg compares the Facebook platform for mobile developers to iOS, Android and Windows Phone at the f8 conference in San Francisco on April 30, 2014 Erin Lubin -- Bloomberg / Getty Images

The most striking thing about the keynote at Facebook’s f8 conference in San Francisco was something that only became apparent after it was over: Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives spent an hour on stage talking about new stuff, and none of it was about Facebook.

Or at least not if you define Facebook as being the social-networking site and app of the same name.

Instead, all the news–and there was tons of it–related to features Facebook is rolling out to help mobile developers build more powerful apps and make more money from them.

A sampling of what got announced:

  • New features for signing into apps using Facebook will let you customize your privacy settings and log in anonymously;
  • AppLinks is a standard that lets mobile apps integrate with each other, so that one app can send you directly to a specific feature in another app, which can then route you back to a specific place in the original one;
  • The company is also offering technology to let mobile apps that normally need web access to store data locally on a device, thereby enabling them to work in offline mode;
  • There’s a new mobile Like button and tools that allow developers to let users share content with specific friends through Facebook Messenger;
  • The Facebook Audience Network will let apps display ads sold by Facebook, and allow marketers to target their ads using information Facebook knows about users, much as already happens on Facebook itself.

Zuckerberg described the company’s vision as offering a “cross-platform platform,” competing in some respects with Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone without forcing developers to build apps for a specific mobile operating system.

It’s a logical extension of what the company has been doing for the majority of its existence: Providing web developers with features that (A) help them offer powerful features without having to build them; and (B) lash them tightly to Facebook, thereby making the web even more dependent on Mark Zuckerberg’s social network as the primary way to keep track of people and their identities.

At the keynote, Zuckerberg said that third-party sites and apps make almost a half-trillion calls to the Facebook API a day–each one representing an instance of Facebook powering something on a site or app other than Facebook itself. Making this infrastructure reliable is so important that he declared that the company has retired its famous mantra–“Move fast and break things”–and now wants to move fast while ensuring that it’s providing robust infrastructure for all the companies that depend on it.

People who don’t like or trust Facebook–a minority, but a passionately vocal one–presumably won’t like the idea of its tendrils stretching deeper and deeper into more and more apps. But how should the rest of us feel about the prospect?

Me, I’m O.K. with it–optimistic, even, that it will lead to better apps. Here’s why:

  • The alternative, oftentimes, is nothing. A pretty high percentage of mobile app developers are small shops with a very limited ability to build complex features from scratch. Facebook’s goal is to let them make their apps more sophisticated by plugging in a few lines of code–a strategy the web has embraced for years now, and which has (mostly) made it a better place.
  • Facebook’s competition is usually another big, powerful company. If apps don’t work with the Facebook Audience Network to monetize themselves through targeted ads, they’ll do something similar with Google or somebody else. Better for Google to face competition from Facebook than for it to end up dominating advertising even more than it already does. And as Zuckerberg said, much of what Facebook is doing provides an alternative to what Apple, Google and Microsoft are doing with their respective operating systems.
  • The privacy controls look reasonable. Consumers have memories like elephants, and Facebook’s reputation is still tarnished by blunders it made years ago when it moved too fast and broke too many things–such as with Beacon, a 2007 advertising technology that left members surprised to find information about their activities elsewhere showing up on their feeds. But at f8, the keynote began with demos of the new granular privacy controls and anonymous login option, both of which should help users take advantage of the Facebook-ization of mobile apps in a way that works for them.

You don’t have to be a Facebook hater to worry, sometimes, about one company controlling so much of the technological plumbing that powers other companies’ services and apps. Ultimately, though, Facebook has became so essential in so many places because it’s built so many useful technologies and has done a better job than anyone else of selling the world on their advantages.

To put it another way: If the idea of Facebook being everywhere bothers you, don’t blame Facebook. Blame everybody else who’s failed, in most instances, to beat it to the punch or provide more compelling alternatives.

TIME Technologizer

Facebook Beefs Up Privacy for App Logins–and Lets You Go Anonymous

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg gives the keynote at Facebook's f8 conference in San Francisco on April 30, 2014 Harry McCracken / TIME

I’m at Facebook’s f8 developer conference in San Francisco, where the keynote is still underway–but there’s already been some significant news.

Mark Zuckerberg opened the day by saying that this conference would be all about how Facebook is building a stable mobile platform for developers–a “cross-platform platform” that competes with Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone. And which isn’t too buggy–Zuckerberg says that Facebook has dumped its old mantra of “Move Fast and Break Things” in favor of moving fast, but worrying about reliability.

The first specific tidbits he shared all had to do with using Facebook to sign into other apps:

  • When you sign into a new app for the first time, you’ll get a list of specific permissions the app would like to have, such as being able to post to your wall–and you’ll be able to turn them on and off selectively, tailoring your level of privacy to your liking.
  • Facebook will stop sharing information involving a user’s friends with apps–so, for instance, an app such as Rdio will never know or display what you’re listening to unless you’ve given explicit permission.
  • You’ll be able to use Facebook to sign into an app anonymously–so your Facebook credentials get used but Facebook doesn’t tell the app who you are.

Interesting stuff. More to come as the conference proceeds.

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