Facebook emotions and happiness blankets

Does manipulating news feeds on a public platform amount to infringement of privacy? Facebook got itself into a bit of a situation when its 2012 study came into public glare recently. According to the report:

"The experiment manipulated the extent to which people were exposed to emotional expressions in their News Feed". The study found that users who had fewer negative stories in their news feed were less likely to write a negative post, and vice versa. The research was done to gauge if "exposure to emotions led people to change their own posting behaviours". However, the research has been criticised because Facebook users were unaware they were taking part.

FB is a large corporation, therefore it can be made answerable. It has admitted that it should have communicated its intent more clearly. However, to what extent is it unethical to contrive what a user sees and keep tabs on how they respond, in this case 700,000 people?

The reason I ask this is that whenever you log into a site, information is collected. Your smartphone gauges your surfing history to not only spam you with ads, but many apps make you sign on with the terms that they will have control over your handset and its contents. The privacy being compromised argument does not work, because there are anonymous users too on Facebook. They are more likely to cause emotional damage than a one-week test.

How does Google know what ads appear along with your email? How do sites you land up at while searching know the state of your computer, and whether it is a desktop, laptop, notebook, tab? And we are not even getting to the desperate peeping toms with their barren lives seeking respite in your virtual but real world.

If the issue is FB psychologically messing with your state of mind, then the moot point is about how fragile emotions are in an unreal environment. I read that somebody protested by saying, “We are not lab rats.”

You are. Marketing gurus, selling everything from products to ideas, influence you either blatantly or through subtler means that dig deep into your psyche. Are you informed about it? But you are sold a need – you are made to experience love, confidence, nurturing. It is all packaged.

You are the experiment when what you read and click on makes you one of the many who have added to make an article “the most popular” even if you disliked it.

It, then, raises the question about whether a week is enough to figure out a newsfeed's influence on individuals in such a manner that they mimic the emotions of the news stories. It is also important to differentiate between the emotion in the news and one it elicits. The shutdown of a pub could well be positive for the owners who got a great deal from an estate agent or those who were disturbed by its presence in the vicinity due to the noise, but it can be overwhelming sad to loyal clientele. Similarly, not everyone is programmed in a uniform manner to react to calamities, unless they have an immediate impact on one’s personal space. A newsfeed on Edward Snowden could be both positive and negative for the NSA, depending on what they wanted to achieve with their spying!

Despite not being a blind fan of social networking, I still believe that FB this time wasn’t terribly wrong.

What bothers me more is how British Airways is using its ‘Happiness Blanket’ to help flyers.

The blanket works by using neuro-sensors to assess levels of relaxation and stress. Sensor data is transmitted to the blanket by Bluetooth and is displayed via fiber-optic LEDs woven into the wool blanket. When a person is stressed or anxious, the LEDs glow red. When the passenger is relaxed and happy, the blanket lights turn blue.

This is intrusive, even if it might assist the staff in understanding how a passenger is feeling and act accordingly. Although it is in the premier cabin, each seat is not an island. Would you want the person next to you to realise that you are disturbed? And as you dig into your dinner and the blanket turns blue, the flight attendant could chuckle that all you need is food to keep you happy. What if after an anxious few minutes you switch on the entertainment channel and watching a steamy scene and the blanket changes colour? I am confused, though. Should it be red or blue? Imagine that people might try and fake happiness only so as not to be in the red.

Attempts at being communicative have now become horribly invasive. Emotions are not what you feel, but what you are expected to feel

© Farzana Versey