Reading Minds: The Most Interesting Thing About Facebook’s Psychology Experiment

Much of the angst about the news of Facebook’s psychology experiment on 600,000 users has focused on the fact that people’s emotions were purposefully manipulated.  While this is, indeed, pretty shocking news (I wonder how many arguments between couples were caused by Facebook putting both parties in crappy moods), the more interesting thing to me is that Facebook can tell the emotional state of people who are posting on their site just by analyzing their posts.

Startup Citizenme provides a service that will take your social postings and provide a personality analysis on many factors, including openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. While I’m sure that any good therapist could review postings and have a point of view to share as well, the fact that his is happening in a very passive way is a little more uncomfortable. I don’t think too many people sign up to be psychoanalyzed or to have their feelings manipulated when they are using Facebook, or any other social media platform for that matter. But that is the brave new world in which we live.

There are plenty of ways to see the benefit of this kind of innovation. Maybe Citizenme will morph into a dating app that connects you to people with similar levels of neuroticism. Maybe there is a new service that will show you positive posts when your own become to negative like an online anti-depressant (did Facebook show posts with kittens to users in Miami after LeBron left?).

But no matter what Citizenme or Facebook intends to do with this knowledge, the fact that our mental states can be evaluated by our posts is something that we should all be aware of. It could become the most targeted of marketing strategies. It is not hard to imagine that Facebook would charge a higher advertising rate to only reach people who were happy. Or sad. Or whatever state of mind makes them most susceptible to buying a specific product. Or it could become a way to manipulate the emotions of an entire group of people, either for good or evil, with the press of a button (like Facebook already did).

Whatever happens, we probably won’t know about it until after it has happened. So for now, get out there and start posting. Its the only way to be part of the experiment, for now.

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