Happy posts in your Facebook feed may perk you up (Wired UK)


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Facebook posts may be making you happy and depressed, but not in
the way you might expect.

In a massive experiment with its users’ News Feeds, Facebook has
found that seeing positive posts influences people to post positive
updates, seeing negative posts influences people to post negative
updates, and that an absence of emotion on their News Feed leads
them to post less overall.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of
Science
 [pdf], is partly a rebuttal to a study last
year that suggested Facebook was making its users depressed, but
also an insight into how Facebook experiments with its News Feed to
keep users engaged.

“The fact that people were more emotionally positive in response
to positive emotion updates from their friends stands in contrast
to theories that suggest viewing positive posts by friends on
Facebook may somehow affect us negatively,” write the authors, who
include Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer.

However, a less generous interpretation could be that people are
motivated to post happier posts because they don’t want to look
downbeat in contrast to their friends.

The experiment took place over the course of a week in January
2013. Facebook tweaked the News Feed of 689,003 users and measured
the effect on their posting behaviour. In total, the study reports,
three million posts containing over 122 million words were
analysed.

Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count
(LIWC)
software was used to determine whether posts were
positive or negative.

When fewer positive posts were shown in a user’s News Feed,
their own posts became proportionally more negative. And when fewer
negative posts appeared, their own posts became proportionally more
positive.

The results shouldn’t be overstated — the effect was small, on
the order of a fraction of percentages. But the authors argue that
“at Facebook’s scale [the effect] is not negligible.”

Perhaps most importantly for Facebook’s long-term need to keep
users engaged, the study found that reducing the amount of
emotional content appearing on a user’s News Feed, whether negative
or positive, resulted in fewer posts from that user.

The effect was slightly more pronounced when positive content
was reduced, suggesting that Facebook users become less engaged
when content on their News Feed becomes more negative.

More generally, the research supports the idea of “emotional
contagion”, which was most famously posited in a 2008 BMJ
study that looked at the “dynamic spread of
happiness in a large social network
“.

But as a 2009 New York Times article on the controversy around the study
pointed out
, “doing long-term studies of social networks is
difficult — it means interviewing and measuring thousands of
people repeatedly over many years.”

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Facebook, it seems, could be a goldmine for this type of
research.

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16 June 2014 | 11:24 am – Source: wired.co.uk
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