Facebook's Experiment: Trivial Pursuit

KUALA LUMPUR - AUGUST 7:Homepage of facebook.com August 7, 2011 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Guardian UK recently reported Mark
KUALA LUMPUR - AUGUST 7:Homepage of facebook.com August 7, 2011 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Guardian UK recently reported Mark Zuckerberg's sister Randy quits facebook to set up her own social website.

The recent hullabaloo about the "experiment" Facebook conducted for one week, in which it scrambled the newsfeed of some of its customers to see if the differences would make them happier, says much more about us than about Facebook. It shows that we would much rather deal with a new scandal, however trivial, rather than face deep, long-standing flaws of our whole social system.

Various commentators are all in a lather about the study. A New York Times editorial condemned Facebook's "high-tech manipulation" for "using our communication tools as conduits for secret, algorithmic manipulations of our emotions," noting that "if there had been federal funding, such a complacent notion of informed consent would probably have been considered a crime." An NBC editorial likewise claimed the study "should send a shiver down the spine of any Facebook user" and is part of "a regime where the companies are trying actively to manipulate you for their own interests. Even, apparently, if it harms you." Robert Klitzman, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, added that it was not a "trivial undertaking," but rather a "scandalous" experiment that "violates accepted research ethics."

What these commentators ignore is that what Facebook did (not very "cool") pales in comparison to what Madison Avenue and the marketing departments of corporations from Amazon to Zales do every day of the week, during the weekends, and especially during holidays. While Facebook did not make up any new messages but merely selected some over others, from those already out in the public domain, typical advertisers concoct messages not with the purpose if finding out what would lift people's dour mood, but rather to manipulate people to buy junk they do not need. (See our short video, "You Don't Need To Buy This.") Moreover, far from being informative, the Madison Avenue stuff is deviously manipulative. It is based on psychological research to find out how the advertisers can get around our aversions and deliberations and appeal surreptitiously to our underlying urges.

If you need reminding about how this is done, regularly, while people fuss about the trivial experiment of Facebook, turn to the pages of a very carefully researched, richly documented study by Michael Moss called Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. The book reveals the ways in which various major corporations that market foods have spent scores of millions to study our urges and to design, package, and advertise foods that are bad for us but good for corporate profits. Sugar, salt, and fats are laced into products that seem to include none because they make them more addictive (e.g. salt in chocolate). Labels on products are carefully framed so that the information is read in ways that are misleading (e.g. instead of telling us the number of calories in the box, it tells us the number per serving). Small items are put into large boxes (e.g. toys) to make them seem more valuable. Boxes are given bright colors because studies show these colors illicit impulse buying. Lobbying is used to bend regulations in favor of the industries rather than customers (e.g. the definition of "lean" meat has been changed so meat that used to be considered fat is now characterized as lean).

Facebook's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg apologized for the company's research. Meanwhile, the hidden persuaders on Madison Avenue are having a ball. Let Americans fuss about the most recent revelation about Facebook while they concoct that next medical ad that tells you that if you don't poop "regularly" enough, or if your legs itch, you'd better go badger your doctor for whatever the most recent snake oil is they are peddling.

I have no shares in Facebook, and have not looked at mine for more years than I can remember. (A young friend posts some of my articles on my page.) However, we would all be better off if we would focus our very justified ire about corporate experimentation where it is most outrageous rather than where it is most recent.

Amitai Etzioni's book, The New Normal: Life in Post Affluence America, will be published by Transaction in November 2014.