The Dark Side of Social Media

Social media is starting to scare me. In the last month there have been two big reveals by Facebook and OK Cupid that are a little startling.

Let’s start with OK Cupid, a popular (free) dating site that basically admitted they were toying with users for years in a sort of social experiment. If you were a user, they might say you were a better match with someone than you really were.

In one experiment, the site took pairs of “bad” matches between two people – about 30% – and told them they were “exceptionally good” for each other, or 90% matches. “Not surprisingly, the users sent more first messages when we said they were compatible,” Christian Rudder, one of the founders of OKCupid, said in a blog post on the company’s research and insights blog. (BBC)



That’s a little scary. To make matters worse, OK Cupid doesn’t even care.

“OkCupid doesn’t really know what it’s doing,” wrote OkCupid president Christian Rudder in a blog post Monday. He said, “If you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work.” (USA Today)

Loosely translated:

deal with it

How can Mr. Rudder be so oblivious to the power his website holds? OK Cupid isn’t Amazon, it’s dealing with the very social fabric that keeps humanity going: relationships. Seriously, did this guy not read Spider-Man comics growing up?


To make matters worse, OK Cupid isn’t even the most damning revelation of a social network affecting human behavior this summer. That goes to the king of all social media:


They admitted to altering users news feeds to influence mood:

For one week in January 2012, data scientists skewed what almost 700,000 Facebook users saw when they logged into its service. Some people were shown content with a preponderance of happy and positive words; some were shown content analyzed as sadder than average. And when the week was over, these manipulated users were more likely to post either especially positive or negative words themselves. (The Atlantic)

OK Cupid is just a dating site. If your date goes badly, you can at least chalk it up to assholes with fake Internet dating profiles. Facebook is real life – or as real as it can get online. Everyone is on Facebook; your friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, that person you met in line at Jack in the Box last week. Facebook is such a popular social network in part because all your connections on it usually started offline.

Seriously, we need to stress this AGAIN:


Facebook may not actively alter the mood of content, but they do alter what content you see through their algorithms. As danah boyd wrote earlier this month:

Facebook actively alters the content you see. Most people focus on the practice of marketing, but most of what Facebook’s algorithms do involve curating content to provide you with what they think you want to see. Facebook algorithmically determines which of your friends’ posts you see. They don’t do this for marketing reasons. They do this because they want you to want to come back to the site day after day. They want you to be happy. They don’t want you to be overwhelmed. Their everyday algorithms are meant to manipulate your emotions. What factors go into this? We don’t know.

I’m a marketer by profession. I spend my entire day on social media accounts, especially Facebook, in an attempt to push a signal through the noise. I know pretty well how to game Facebook’s system. Post engaging content and your fans will like, comment and share it; making it more likely that they see your content in the future.

This makes perfect sense for Facebook pages, but Facebook also has an algorithm for your friends. Isn’t that irresponsible? Should a corporation really be in charge of the information you get from your social circle?

If Facebook decided to secretly abuse this power, the consequences could be very Orwellian.

Take this other great passage from boyd’s article:

My minimal use has made me an algorithmic pariah and if I weren’t technologically savvy enough to know better, I would feel as though I’ve been shunned by my friends rather than simply deemed unworthy by an algorithm.

It’s scary to think of someone feeling a lack of worth because of Facebook’s algorithm. Even scarier, what if Facebook decided to start altering newsfeeds for someone’s specific personal gain (think a political candidate)?

The next big social network? Maybe not the one that discovers the next great niche, maybe it’s one that does this: