Manipulate us! – Social networks’ power over our lives

The internet has eliminated all things that make life unpredictable. Luckily, the large online corporations are coming to our rescue.

A while ago, Facebook caused headlines when it revealed that it had been experimenting with its users’ emotions. Unbeknownst to a subset of users, their news feeds had been manipulated to determine whether the social network could impact their spirits. Would a torrent of pessimistic status updates lead to an equally foul mood? Or could a mostly positive newsfeed generate happy feelings among the test group?

The indignation about this experiment had just died down when the makers of the dating portal OkCupid announced that they too had been experimenting on their customers. By altering the site’s algorithm, they had matched some people who did not at all fit together. Would they get along? Perhaps even fall in love?

Sand in the gears of our optimized lives

At first I found both cases just as shocking as the companies’ justifications that some paragraph hidden in their sites’ terms of use had permitted such experiments. But then I read American psychologist Ray Junco’s take on the affair (“The worst thing that could have happened is people send a few more messages, and maybe you went on a date you didn’t like”) and it dawned on me what a noble service Facebook and OkCupid had really offered us.

The Internet has long been creating a very seamless user experience: Online shopping removes the need to wait in line; music streaming services will play all your favorite songs; and Facebook’s infamous “Like” button has not only reduced the multitude of human communication to one click, its thumb also perpetually points upwards and never downwards. What got lost in the quest to eliminate all unpleasantries are the things that make life unpredictable, that make it rough around the edges and ultimately more interesting. On top of that list: seriously bad tempers and even worse dates. All that manipulation does is throw some sand into the gears of our optimized lives. Why fret about it?

After all, a little corporate brainwashing hardly makes a difference. In an age when the media focuses on Miley Cyrus’ twerking escapades and dangles endless click bait in front of our eyes, we are already being manipulated. And a bad mood might just have a bad rep: According to the bestseller Time for Outrage by late author Stéphane Hessel, a little indignation is instrumental in driving societal change.

Insist on manipulation

Come to think of it, I can think of plenty of potential guinea pigs that might profit from a little manipulation. How about meddling with the feelings of our European leaders? The NSA affair has demonstrated how easy it is to access their phones, so it can’t be hard to engineer a little outrage about the secret services that have been trampling on citizens’ fundamental rights. Or how about an unwanted date between Benjamin Netanyahu and the leader of Hamas? Would they get along? I also wouldn’t mind some manipulated news feeds of those politicians attending the New York climate summit, if only to make them arrive in a somewhat hopeful spirit.

If it’s just the mad data scientists working for Facebook and OkCupid that can stop the world from sinking into lethargy, we should insist on more experimentation, not less. And scroll past the terms of service even faster than we already do.

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