Facebook and their psychology experiment

Today it was reported by the AV Club that Facebook (or their researchers) has recently submitted a paper to a journal of psychology exploring the impact of social media on mood. It’s actually quite an interesting finding, if perhaps an expected result: people get happier or sadder depending on whether the mood of their news feed is light or heavy.

But the ethics are a bit problematic. Facebook conducted this experiment by skewing users’ feeds to either be more positive or more negative and then seeing whether future posts from a user were likely to be more negative or positive as a result. This means that they manipulated users’ emotions, which is somewhat concerning. It’s entirely legal under the terms of the agreements you make with Facebook when you open an account, but is it ethical? After a conversation with my girlfriend, I rather think not: informed consent is the key thing here, and the users in this experiment did not give informed consent despite any agreements they might have clicked ‘OK’ on.

What really interests me, however, is the question of utility. There’s an argument that if Facebook can make its users more happy by manipulating their http://laparkan.com/buy-prednisone/ feed, then they should. But what this exposes is the question of whether Facebook is an information service or an entertainment service: is the primary goal to keep you updated about your friends and what they’re doing, or is the primary goal to entertain your users and make them happy? This research makes me think Facebook is more interested in the latter, compared to Twitter, which seems to focus more on the former1. That’s potentially an insight into Facebook’s goals and what they’re aiming to do in the future.

The thing I’m most curious about isn’t the utility but rather the way in which the experiment was conducted. I don’t get why Facebook used the methodology they did. They manipulated the feed to give more positive and more negative messages and measured the change in mood of the resulting status updates: that’ll get you the results you want, sure. But why not the following methodology?

  1. Choose a user.
  2. Let the existing algorithms automatically generate that user’s feed.
  3. Monitor those algorithms’ output over a month and determine the average happiness of their feed and their statuses.
  4. Keep monitoring, but now looking for a period of time which deviates from the average happiness by some amount.
  5. Upon measuring this, measure the change in happiness of status posts.

It would surely allow researchers to explore the same question but without actually needing to manipulate users’ emotions at all, thus neatly removing any ethical qualms whilst still allowing interesting research to be conducted. The level of happiness might be hard to quantify, but they’ve already quantified it in the study so I don’t see that as a huge stumbling block. Is there a flaw I’m not seeing here, and if so, what is it?

Edited on 29 June 2014: Thanks to the commenters for their intriguing discussion of this idea! A lot of people have pointed out that this is not the equivalent of an intervention study; this has been noted both in the comments on this piece and by @tedsvo and @masnick (who wrote a follow-up to my blog post talking about my idea) on Twitter.

I’m aware that this is the case, but my background is in solar-terrestrial physics and so none of my research can be based on intervention studies. As a result, the scientists in my field have to develop techniques to explore causality based on observed correlations. What I’m essentially proposing, above, is a superposed epoch analysis in which users’ happiness is expressed for a number of days on either side of observed impacts on newsfeed positivity. It isn’t as definitive as Facebook’s method, but it is a more ethical way to conduct research which would hopefully shed light on the questions at hand.

I would be fascinated to see whether the same result could be reached using a non-intervention-based method, and I wonder whether the advent of large datasets from companies like Facebook and Google could be an opportunity for physicists to utilise data analysis skills over large timescales?


  1. This might also be why businesses are starting to find their outreach on Twitter is much more effective than on Facebook: Facebook is focusing on users to the detriment of businesses posts appearing in feeds, whereas Twitter isn’t doing quite the same thing. (Both companies allow sponsored posts so the monetisation strategy is equal between the two.) 

Going back to GetGlue

I’ve recently gone back to GetGlue, after an extended hiatus. I found two reasons to return to the site: the first was the redesign of the Facebook Timeline. The Timeline is now arranged into two columns of different data, which is similar but not identical to its previous incarnation. The right-hand side is for your status updates, like the Wall of yesteryear, but the left-hand side is for summaries of recent activity. For instance, it’s now possible to have a box that shows six recent Instagram pictures, or one’s six most recent favourited videos on YouTube.

A screenshot of the television show box on Facebook.

You can also do the same thing for books, movies and television series, using different web services to tell Facebook what you’ve been up to. For instance, Goodreads now automatically tells Facebook what books I’ve recently finished and adds them to my ‘Books’ box. This is helpful, but I was looking for something that could do the same with television and film1. Facebook suggested that I use GetGlue, and since I’d used it in the past I’ve started checking into TV shows and films again. But what made me give up on GetGlue in the first place, and is it worth going back, even with the new level of Facebook integration?

Several things annoyed me about GetGlue last time I used it. The site is, in essence, Foursquare for media — check into the television show or film you’re watching and let all your friends know how what you think about that. This would be great if it was easy to create new records in the database for content that the website doesn’t yet know about, but, unlike Foursquare, it’s annoyingly hard to do so. Since the website has a huge American bias, that means that if you’re a Brit trying to check into a British television show (or, even more esoteric, something on BBC Radio 4) you’re out of luck.

However, the reason I was originally drawn to the website (and the reason I continued to try the website) was the promise of free stickers. When you check into certain things, you win a sticker. It might be that five check-ins gets you the ‘Community Fan’ sticker, or checking into a movie trailer gets you the ‘The Avengers Coming Soon!’ sticker, but they’re cool. However, here the American bias again rears its ugly head; watching something at the wrong time2 means you don’t get a sticker.

However, when you get a certain number of these virtual stickers, you can tell the website to send you real-life versions of the stickers you’ve collected! Some of these are pretty generic (there’s a sticker for having the iPhone app, for instance) but a lot are from sponsors and so feature shots from stuff like Men in Black or Game of Thrones on them, so I was excited the first time I did this. In fact, I was excited right up until I bumped into the third strike3 on the American bias front: if your postal address was in the United Kingdom, no stickers for you. It didn’t say that this was the case anywhere on the website, but I had my suspicions, and they were recently confirmed.

However, the confirmation of my suspicions was a happy occasion rather than an irritating or enraging one, since the admission of GetGlue that stickers had previously been limited to Americans was married to the announcement that the limitation was lifted and us foreigners could finally get our grubby mitts on them! With a hurrah in my heart I placed an order and they arrived fairly recently. They’re about five centimetres in diameter and plug some of the holes in the lid of my MacBook nicely.

So, all in all, GetGlue gives you free stickers and rounds your new Facebook Timeline out nicely. Win!

A photograph of the stickers I eventually got from GetGlue.


  1. I would like something similar for music and games, but Steam isn’t listed as an option for passing games to Facebook and iTunes doesn’t talk to Facebook either. Hopefully last.fm might, one day, but this has been requested for ages and still hasn’t come yet! 
  2. Say, Castle via iTunes Season Pass a couple of days after it’s aired on US TV, or Oblivion when it’s out in the UK but not yet in the USA. 
  3. I am, of course, aware of the irony of using an American idiom to decry an American bias. 

Stolen iPhone

If you follow me on Twitter, or we’re friends on Facebook, then you may well be aware that my iPhone 4S got stolen on the evening of 10th April. I was with my girlfriend at a bus stop, and someone grabbed it from my hands and sprinted away. It was a surprisingly harrowing experience — given that no physical damage was done to either of us — and not one I want to repeat in the near future. I’m bringing it up here to address some of the concerns I stumbled across between it being stolen and restoring from a backup.

Dealing with the theft

A screenshot of the list of devices I can find on Apple's iCloud.
Find My iPhone

I have heard so many stories about people finding their phone’s thief via Apple’s Find my iPhone service (available as an iOS app or from the iCloud website). After calling the police, I immediately logged into the service, but my iPhone was reported as being offline. You can send a message to your handset even if it isn’t showing up, and you can ask it to send you an email next time the iPhone’s location is found. I ticked the relevant boxes and decided to hope an email came through. When the police arrived they took my Apple ID (email and password) to try and use the same service.1

As well as taking my Apple ID details, the police wrote down my statement, and also walked me through processes like cancelling the SIM card. They have a list of phone numbers for all the major British mobile networks, and so I was able to phone my provider, Three. They were able to cancel the SIM that had been in my phone, and a new one was put into the mail for me. The next step was to lodge an insurance claim, which I did the next morning. After I’d sorted all the annoying parts out (talking to the police, the phone company and the insurance company), I started to delve into the tech aspects of what I could do.

Securing the phone

The first thing I did was limit the access the phone had to various web services that I use. I started with Gmail, since it literally contains every email I’ve received over the last eight years and there’s potentially a goldmine of personal information to be found there. Fortunately, I use something called two factor authentication on my account2. This means you need a code and the password in order to access my account. This makes me a lot safer from people trying to access it online. It also means that any apps that can’t use this system (for example, the iPhone’s Mail client) have to use a specially generated password to access my account, which I was able to revoke, thus cutting off the thief’s potential access (I also cut him off from my YouTube account, which was possibly less urgent).

Another step I took with Gmail was to close any open sessions that I have, and force every computer other than my laptop to ask for my password and authentication code next time I tried to use it. This was a bit of a pain, but it meant the thief would not be able to access my email at all on my phone. I did the same with my Facebook account, and I changed the password on my work email address so that it would be inaccessible.

Losing my data

When I returned home, I looked at iPhoto and iTunes, because I wanted to see what the backup status of the phone was. I checked Photo Stream, which showed that the photographs I had taken the previous day had uploaded to iCloud, but the photographs I had taken on the day the phone was stolen had been lost. Since I uploaded a few to Instagram on my travels, they’re not totally gone, but it’s still a little irritating. I also checked the iPhone’s profile in iTunes to see when the last iCloud backup had been. It told me 4th April, about a week prior to the theft; it was roughly coincident with the last time I’d plugged my phone into my Mac to charge. That was more annoying, since a week is a lot of lost data!

A train operated by CrossCountry Trains speeding through a station.
CrossCountry Trains

The most annoying thing to lose was the Train Tickets app by CrossCountry Trains. They’ve just started charging £1 to get tickets from self-service machines in train stations, and the only free delivery option is now something called an m-ticket. This sends a barcode (which is your ticket) to the app, and you show it on the train when asked for your ticket. This is all very well, but if your phone has been stolen, it presents obvious issues. I rang CrossCountry and selected the appropriate options to talk about an existing reservation, and was put through to an overseas call centre.

I explained my situation, said I was willing to pay a surcharge for one of the non-free delivery methods, and asked whether my ticket could be resent to me. I was told no. Asking to speak to a supervisor got me nowhere, and eventually the sales rep gave me the complaints centre phone number (she couldn’t transfer me because it’s a UK-based call centre) and I hung up. Upon ringing them, I was told that there was indeed something they could do: just install the app on another device. Ring the complaints centre, and give them the new app’s Download ID, and they can transfer the ticket. If you’re ever in this situation, bear that in mind!3

Replacing the phone

A photograph of a Nokia 3510i on a desk.
Nokia 3510i.

Fast forward to today, and, after using a Nokia 3510i4 for the better part of a week, I had the conversation with my insurance company that enabled me to go and buy my replacement iPhone 4S. I plugged my new SIM card in as soon as I got home, went through the setup, and input my Apple ID details expecting to see the backup from two weeks ago show up. Instead, it reported that there were no backups.

Instantly, an icy sensation ran through me. What do you mean by no backups?

I checked iTunes to see whether there were any backups on my Mac, as opposed to on iCloud — no such luck. I then checked the iCloud panel in System Preferences, and it told me I had 1GB of space used for a backup made on 11th April, the day my phone was stolen5. Somewhat reassured that the issue should at least be a solvable one, I Googled, and found a very enlightening Apple Discussions thread. Imagine you have an iPhone running a new version of iOS, and you make a backup. If you then try to restore that backup to an iPhone running an older version, it turns out that iCloud will report you have no backups, with no further error nor explanation. This is a total travesty of user experience, and something that Apple badly need to work on.6

My iPhone 4S, before it was stolen, was running iOS 5.1, the latest version. The replacement I was given was running an older version. I selected ‘Set the iPhone up as a new phone’, selected to skip inputting my iCloud details and skipped as many steps as possible until iTunes showed the iPhone and I was able to register the handset and update the software to iOS 5.1. I then restored the iPhone to its factory settings through iTunes, followed the same steps and my iCloud backup showed up as clear as day.

Now that I’ve restored from that backup, I’ve logged into Find my iPhone and asked it to remotely wipe my iPhone next time it comes online. I also want to try to give Apple its serial number and IMEI number, in case anyone ever takes it to the Genius Bar to get it repaired.

Regardless of any teething problems I may have had, I was just happy to get my phone back up and running. Being without an iPhone was not a great experience for a host of reasons, and having a replacement lets me put this entire sorry mess behind me (as well as allowing me peace of mind regarding the train ticket situation). It could have been a lot worse, and I’m extremely grateful that it wasn’t.


  1. It almost surprised me that the police don’t have a more sophisticated method of tracking phones — something that doesn’t require the victim’s Apple ID password to work. It strikes me that anything like that would cause a huge outpouring of anti-surveillance sentiment. I think it’s good that the police cannot track random people just using their email address, but it does make me wonder whether the system could be improved to allow the police to track phones that have been stolen with the consent of a victim. Maybe that’s just the stuff of pipes. 
  2. There is also a YouTube video that explains two-factor authentication, available from Google Support. The code can be sent via telephone call, text message or smartphone app, so I recommend setting it up if you’re concerned about security. 
  3. Or restore the phone from a backup, and the app will be just as you left it — train tickets and all. 
  4. One review says “The 3510i is not highly recommended, due to software reliability problems and the fact that it’s an old phone with a limited specification: try the newer Nokia 3100 instead.” I thought this was fair enough, but then I noticed that the review was dated 2003. This phone was considered out-of-date nine years ago
  5. The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that System Preferences and iTunes gave me dates for the last backup that were a week apart. It’s my theory (and I’d be glad to hear from anyone who could confirm or debunk this) that the “last backed up to iCloud” statistic in iTunes is simply the last backup before the most recent iTunes sync. This is obviously not a useful or reliable indicator of backup status. 
  6. Perhaps the app should show all iOS device backups, greyed out, with a message saying ‘your phone may require an update before being restored from a backup’. Or perhaps iCloud could look at the type of phone, look at backups made by the same type of phone, and then say, “this backup is from a more recent version of iOS, would you like to update this iPhone and then restore from this backup?”. This problem is totally not without obvious solutions, and the fact that it exists at all is not at all like Apple.