Facebook Experiment: Justified Outrage

July 3, 2014

The reaction to the Facebook mood experiment has caused justified outrage. I am not thinking of those who see it as the latest advance in the inexorable Orwellian creep that will leave us all living like goldfish in a massive translucent pond. In this context, Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk are herons. The justified outrage is from those complaining that another social experiment has been conducted at great cost in terms of money and intellectual resources which produces a conclusion that my Grandma Phoebe could have given you for the price of a bottle of rum. People exposed to good news pass on positive messages and those exposed to bad news pass on negative messages. Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs. Who’d have thunk it! Normally, when the dog dies, it’s party time.

My first reaction to news of the experiment was that it was boring. After all, news media, including this one in its own small way, filter stories and try to manipulate emotions – even if the reaction I tend to go for is ‘that’s interesting’ and the reaction the Daily Mail goes for is horrified – we are all in the same game. And of course, it is an every-day part of most other aspects of life. The suggestion that consent should have been obtained from those subject to this manipulation seemed as daft as telling those involved in the {Milgram experiment: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment} that the electric shocks they were administering were not real.

But my real concern now is that a minor issue such as this has been leapt on by all and sundry as though it was some major crime that threatens the world’s privacy. I despair when I hear that the ICO is to talk to Facebook about it (although surely it is one for Billy Hawkes, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, {i}if anyone{/i}). Don’t we have better things to be outraged by? There is a danger that data protection commentators are becoming like maiden aunts at a party – looking for something to be shocked by in every move. OK, Facebook’s skirt is a bit short and it was drinking out of a bottle and eating with its mouth open but it is all trivial. Some are so busy being shocked that they haven’t noticed the couple having sex under the table.

We need to save our outrage for bigger things than {i}openly published{/i} experiments like this. When we have large-scale snooping and underhand manipulation for profit all around us, let’s ‘cry wolf’ only when we fear there may be a real threat to privacy. God knows, there are enough of those threats around to keep us hoarse for a long time.