Facebook to Be More Transparent About User Experiments

Facebook Inc. plans to keep experimenting with how its service affects users’ behavior -- just more responsibly.

The Menlo Park, California-based social network said in a blog post yesterday that it’s giving its researchers clearer guidelines to follow when studying sensitive topics, such as users’ emotions. Facebook said it has also created a board composed of members of its legal and privacy teams to review proposed projects.

The changes follow a controversy in June over a 2012 mood experiment that influenced what almost 700,000 Facebook members saw on their news feeds, which the company didn’t publicly disclose until this year. Facebook has repeatedly had to respond to concerns about how it handles data on its members, which now number more than 1.3 billion worldwide. Last month, the company prompted users to review their privacy settings, taking a proactive step to assuage such concerns.

“It is clear now that there are things we should have done differently,” Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer said in yesterday’s post, referring to the 2012 experiment. “In releasing the study, we failed to communicate clearly why and how we did it.”

Schroepfer said Facebook turned to academics for advice on how to improve its program after being unprepared for a public backlash over the mood experiment. Facebook still needs to do research to improve its products and understand what needs to be built, but will be more transparent about the process, posting all studies on a website for the public, he said.

‘First Step’

“It’s a great first step,” said Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law and one of the academics the company consulted. Still, he said, Facebook hasn’t been clear yet about the criteria they use to evaluate a potential project. “I’d like to know more about the guidelines they have in place.”

Facebook’s psychological experiment altered the number of positive and negative comments in some members’ news feeds during a week in 2012 and tested their reaction. The company, which published its results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that users who saw happy posts felt happy. That refuted earlier studies that said seeing happy posts from others can cause the reader to feel depressed.

The publication of the study drew outrage over how the company had used people as guinea pigs without their specific consent. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy group, filed a complaint against the company with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in July, asking regulators to investigate the experiment.

A Facebook researcher involved in the study later publicly apologized for the situation. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said the study was “communicated poorly.”

Separately, Facebook apologized earlier this week to drag queens and the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community after an outcry over the social network’s policy of requiring members to use real names for their accounts on its service.

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