The first mainstream story about the now-notorious Facebook “psychology experiment” study was cautious, even sober. “Even online, emotions can be contagious,” New Scientist‘s headline said. It maintained its tone:
[Facebook] manipulated which posts showed up on the news feeds of more than 600,000 Facebook users. For one week, some users saw fewer posts with negative emotional words than usual, while others saw fewer posts with positive ones.
People were more likely to use positive words in Facebook posts if they had been exposed to fewer negative posts throughout the week, and vice versa. The effect was significant, though modest.
This story was doomed, in the internet sense, from the start: It was a news brief, obviously written for print, summarizing a study.
The day after it was posted, and nearly two weeks after a cluster of similar stories had been ignored, it was picked up, repackaged, and optimized by a handful of other outlets, who saw in it both an interesting story and an opportunity. Among the first was Animal, which found the heart of the story: “Facebook Experiment Manipulates Emotions Of 600,000 Users,” was its packaging. “Apparently what many of us feared is already a reality: Facebook is using us as lab rats.” This version appears to have been shared a healthy but modest number of times. A hit, not a sensation.
The final refinement, or the lucky one, came from The A.V. Club. With an item that aggregated the Animal post while linking around the New Scientist story to the original study, the site hit gold: “Facebook tinkered with users’ feeds for a massive psychology experiment” has been shared on Facebook over one hundred thousand times; the New Scientist story, even after receiving credit in dozens of popular followup stories, has been shared about a thousand and a half times.
Facebook doesn’t intentionally reward any particular editorial style; it mostly seems to promote content that causes people to use Facebook more vigorously. New Scientist‘s story, as presented, might coax a post out of a few people, but its headline and tone demand reading and analysis—you have to work a little before arriving at an emotional response (another way to describe it is boring). The content of the The A.V. Club‘s story is a fair enough representation of its subject but the presentation teeters on that sharp, high, slippery peak of sʜᴀʀᴇᴀʙɪʟɪᴛʏ: It leaves something to the imagination, so you’ll probably end up stopping to look at it; at the same time, it contains enough information, after a quick scan, to pass the engage-without-reading threshold. Facebook tinkered with OUR feeds for a WHAT experiment? Haha, dang, I knew it. Commented, shared, and read (maybe).
Enough publishers—basically all?—are trying to pull off this new aggregation balancing act, between reporting and aggregation and uncanny social media colloquialism, that intentionally and even correctly assembling a story to feel Facebook “native” doesn’t necessarily work—there’s stiff competition, and the best, biggest internet sensations are still accidents (burn down the whole damn thing the day this ceases to be true). The difference now is that you don’t have to repackage things for the dumb search machines, you repackage them for the strange shapeshifting link bazaar where most people share stuff online, with its house tone and rules and mechanisms and limits.
The media narrative on this Facebook story is getting ridiculous pic.twitter.com/fhjum1BYd0
— Christopher Mims (@mims) June 30, 2014
Facebook provided the context in which this “ridiculous” narrative was cultured and incubated; it also provided the environment where it was able to flourish. The countless followup stories from this weekend, advancing but mostly rehashing the narrative created by Animal and perfected by The A.V. Club, are even more a product of their environment. A viral, newsy story on Facebook creates both a genuine cultural sensation, because Facebook is huge, and a short-term traffic bonanza for anyone who happens to be nearby. The latter effect, however, might be incidental: Facebook is interested in stories that make people use Facebook more. That these stories produce external traffic is at best a fringe benefit and at worst an inefficiency.
What better way to get people commenting, sharing, and ENGAGING than a sensational story about the place it all happens to start with? If News Feed could dream, it would dream of stories like this. Which isn’t necessarily damning, because this is a pretty good one: Big scary Facebook screwed around with users’ emotions just to see what would happen, and because it could (and also, in part, to combat another narrative about Facebook, that constant exposure to friends’ happy feeds causes depression). That’s crazy, that Facebook would experiment on us like that.
I knew Facebook was weird, but the study it did without even telling us? Wow.
I can’t believe how Facebook turned us into a psych experiment.
And you won’t either.
Update: Link added to the The Daily Dot‘s early coverage of the study