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10 Jul 16:34

10 Other Facebook Experiments On Users, Rated On A Highly-Scientific WTF Scale

by Kashmir Hill

A former Facebook data scientist who set out to defend the company’s emotion-manipulation experiment on nearly 700,000 users decried the hubbub about it, saying that experiments are happening all the time at the company and that every Facebook users has been part of one at some point. Yes, we can all wear t-shirts saying, “I, too, am a Facebook lab rat.” Most of the “experiments” are A/B testing that’s standard on the Web and rather boring — such as which color blue you’re mostly like to click or how big an ad needs to be for you to notice it — but some are interesting enough to warrant academic write-ups for shedding new light on human behavior.

Here’s other research done by Facebook data scientists on users (possibly on you) that we know about because it’s been published. I’ve given each of these studies a “WTF rating.” In my opinion, the hubbub-inducing study in January 2012, which involved curating the emotional content of users’ News Feeds to see if Facebook could manipulate their emotions, is the most intrusive, WTF-y of experiments for poking and prodding users emotionally to see what happens, so that’s the high end of the scale. These other studies run by Facebook data scientists, sometimes in collaboration with academic researchers, are in reverse chronological order. Facebook data scientists who pop up often as study creators are Adam Kramer, who conducted the emotion study; Cameron Marlow, who founded Facebook’s in-house sociology team but has since left the company; and Dean Eckles, an academic cited in Eli Pariser’s Filter Bubble for his work on persuasion.

Facebook wanted to see how easily users were duped

Study 1: Rumor Cascades
What Facebook wanted to find out: How easy is it for lies to spread?
When it happened: July and August 2013
How many users: ?
How they did it: Researchers looked at over 200,000 photo comments posted to the site with Snopes.com links. Snopes is a rumor-debunking site so would indicate the shared photo was an example of someone being duped and then erroneously passing it on to their friends, such as people claiming this guy was Trayvon Martin at 17 or that Obamacare would tax non-medical items like clothes and rifles. They then looked at how viral those photos went.
What Facebook found out: People like spreading rumors. Outrageous stuff travels farther and faster than debunking of that outrageous stuff. But researchers also noted that posts that “get Snoped” are 4.4 times as likely to get deleted.
WTF rating: Low. Interesting study, but it’s a reminder that Facebook can easily figure out which users are the dumb, rumor-spreading ones, and that Facebook has the ability to keep track of the dumb thing you posted even after you delete it. Business case for this could be that Facebook is a news service and wants to stop the spread of false information.

***

Study 2: Calling All Facebook Friends: Exploring requests for help on Facebook
What Facebook wanted to find out: Who asks for something on Facebook?
When it happened: Two weeks in July and August 2012
How many users: 20,000 users
How they did it: Researchers looked through public status updates looking for requests like “What movie should I watch tonight?,” “Is it okay to eat canned food that expired in 2005?” or “I need a ride to the airport.”
What Facebook found out: Researchers were more interested in people asking for help than whether they got it. People who visit Facebook less often, but who have a lot of friends, are most likely to ask for help with stuff.
WTF score: Nil. These are public updates, no surprise that someone’s collecting and studying them. There’s a business case in saying that Facebook helps you solve your problems, if the study had actually proved that.

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Study 3: Self-censorship on Facebook
What Facebook wanted to find out: How many people hold back from blasting the network with their thoughts on something?
When it happened: 17 days in July 2012
How many users: 3.9 million users
How they did it: They tracked every entry of more than 5 characters in a comment or compose box that didn’t get posted within 10 minutes.
What Facebook found out: We’re thinking things that we don’t put down to digital paper. 71% of the users “self-censored,” drafting comments that they never posted.
WTF score: Medium. One of the two authors of this study is our friend, Adam Kramer, the Facebook data scientist who ran the emotion manipulation experiment. The study tracked these entries regardless of a user’s privacy setting though it only tracked that they entered something not what it was. Still, it led to quite a few headlines about Facebook tracking what you don’t do on Facebook. A Facebook spokesperson told me at the time that the site doesn’t usually do that. The business case for running this study is a little hard to parse, though you could argue it’s necessary for Facebook to figure out how to get us all to overshare to keep its site going.

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Lucky test subjects got to decide whether they wanted to share

Study 4: Selection Effects in Online Sharing: Consequences for Peer Adoption
What Facebook wanted to find out: Does broadcasting that you plan to buy something make your friends jump on the same opportunity?
When it happened: Two month period in 2012
How many users: 1.2 million users
How they did it: Users who claimed “Facebook Offers” — such as an offer for free lace panties from Victoria’s Secret — were put into two groups. One group had the offers they claimed auto-shared so that friends would see it in their News Feeds. People in the other group were graciously given a button to click if they wanted to broadcast the offer claim to their friends.
What Facebook found out: Friends are more likely to also claim the offer when you actively decide to share it with them. But when it comes to the sheer numbers game, more offers get claimed when everyone in your News Feed gets spammed every time.
WTF score: Medium-high. Auto-sharing is creepy and users had the active or “passive” sharing randomly assigned to them, changing their experience (and their spammed friends’ experience) of the site. When given the option to share, only 23% chose to do so. There is a clear business case for Facebook finding out how to get offers claimed as it’s key to revenue. Media reports at the time the paper came out claimed Facebook was killing the auto-sharing though Facebook’s Help Page indicates you still have to opt out, offer by offer.

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The two different ads subjects would see depending on their assigned test group

Study 5: Social Influence in Social Advertising: Evidence from Field Experiments
What Facebook wanted to find out: Do ads work better on you when your friends’ names appear next to them, endorsing them?
When it happened: 2011
How many users: 29 million users
How they did it: They showed users ads with and without a “Kashmir Hill likes this” style endorsement from users’ friends and then measured clicks.
What Facebook found out:The stronger your buddy bond with the person endorsing the ad, the more likely you are to click.
WTF score: Nil. This is exactly the kind of test I’d expect Facebook to run. Clear business case for making ads work better. Facebook has dealt with that whole legality around putting users’ likeness in endorsements thing, so now it’s smooth sailing though I certainly expect they’re running experiments all the time to optimize advertising.

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Study 6: Inferring Tie Strength from Online Directed Behavior
What Facebook wanted to find out: Which of your Facebook friends are true IRL friends?
When it happened: 2010/2011
How many users: 789 users
How they did it: The relatively tiny group of users were recruited with Facebook ads to take a survey asking who their closest friends were in real life.
What Facebook found out: The more you interact with someone on Facebook, the more likely you are to be IRL friends. And you’re as likely to interact with them publicly, putting your closeness on display for all to see via Wall posts, as to send them private messages.
WTF score: Low. I initially wondered if those survey takers realized that by naming their closest friends they were signing up to have all of their Facebook activity scrutinized by researchers. The study says this was IRB approved and that written informed consent was obtained from all participants, so Facebook does know how to do that! The business lesson for Facebook (and other social networks): “It is not critical to have information about private communication behavior in order to characterize the likelihood that two users are closely connected in the real world.”

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Information choking for science

Study 7: The Role of Social Networks in Information Diffusion
What Facebook wanted to find out: How does information spread on Facebook?
When it happened: Seven weeks in August/October 2010
How many users: 253 million users (At the time, this was half of all Facebook users)
How they did it: Researchers “randomly” assigned 75 million urls a “share” or “no-share” status. The links could have been news articles, or job offers, or an apartment for rent, or news of an upcoming concert. Any kind of links that Facebook users share. Except if it got a “no-share” status, it was “disappeared” meaning it wouldn’t show up in News Feeds. “”Directed shares, such as a link that is included in a private Facebook message or explicitly posted on a friend’s wall, are not affected by the assignment procedure,” wrote the researchers. Well, thanks for that! Researchers then compared the virality of links that were allowed to be seen with those that weren’t. The researchers wanted to know whether the censored information would still “find a way,” Jurassic Park style, to spread.
What Facebook found out: Unsurprisingly, you’re more likely to spread information if you can see friends sharing it. Researchers found that distant friends are more likely to expose you to novel information than your close friends, as judged by your likelihood of sharing it after seeing it.
WTF score: Medium-High. Hope no important information got censored. I’m not sure about the business case for this one. One of the closing lines reads a little ominously in context: “The mass adoption of online social networking systems has the potential to dramatically alter an individual’s exposure to new information,” including making sure they don’t have access to it at all.

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Facebook tries its hand at making users better citizens

Study 8: A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization
What Facebook wanted to find out: Can it encourage people to vote?
When it happened: 2010 midterm elections in the U.S.
How many users: 61,279,316 users over the age of 18
How they did it: They offered test subjects an ‘I Voted’ button at the top of their News Feeds and information on how to find their polling place. Some users also saw the names of their friends who had clicked the button. The control group got no prompt to vote. Then the researchers checked public voting records to see which of the millions actually voted.
What Facebook found out: Peer pressure works. People were more likely to click the “I Voted” button if their friends’ names appeared there. When researchers checked actual voting records, they found that people who got the “I Voted” message in their News Feed were 0.39% more likely to have actually voted, and were more likely to have voted if their friends’ names appeared. Those are miniscule percentages but the researchers think their experiment resulted in 340,000 votes that wouldn’t have otherwise happened.
WTF score: High. While getting people to perform their civic duty and vote is an admirable enterprise, this enters serious society control territory. As many critics have pointed out, Facebook could theoretically put the “I Voted” button only in the feeds of users that are in favor of immigration reform (something Zuck has been pushing for with his FWD.us lobby group) or only in the feeds of Republicans or Democrats to potentially swing elections. None of the users realized that they were part of this experiment or that Facebook would go looking for their names in voting records; they did come up with a privacy-preserving way to do that. There wasn’t an obvious business case for this one; it was a pure can-we-really-do-this study.

The researchers in the paper said they certainly want to do more of these: “[T]he
growing availability of cheap and large-scale online social network data means that these experiments can be easily conducted in the field. If we want to truly understand—and improve—our society, well-being and the world around us, it will be important to use these methods to identify which real world behaviours are amenable to online interventions.”

There’s evidence that Facebook ran another experiment around the election in 2012, but we won’t know what it was until (or if) there’s a paper published about it.

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Study 9: The Spread of Emotion Via Facebook
What Facebook wanted to find out: Does your emotional state affect your friends?
When it happened: Some three-day period prior to 2012 (when the paper was published)
How many users: 151 million users
How they did it: Run by Adam Kramer, this was the precursor to the “emotional contagion” study. In this study, he just looked at 1 million users’ status updates, rating them as positive or negative based on terms used, and then looked at the postivity or negativity of the posts of those users’ 150 million friends.
What Facebook found out: Your happy updates lead friends to suppress their negative posts, and your negative posts lead them to suppress their happy ones. If you say something upbeat on Facebook, one out of every 100 friends (who wouldn’t have otherwise, according to the study) will do the same within 3 days.
WTF score: Low. Assessing the emotional tone of status updates on Facebook is pretty mundane. However, it did lead this researcher down the path of trying to see if it was possible for Facebook to actively manipulate the emotions of individual users based on which of their friends’ posts they expose them to.

Kramer warned users not to try to manipulate friends themselves: “These results suggest that posts to Facebook have the ability to affect our friends’ subsequent posts… [H]owever, we would not advise Facebook users to go around expressing disingenuous positivity or to suppress the expression of negative emotions in order to keep one’s friends happy.” Facebook though did go on to do something similar to see what would happen.

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Study 10: Feed Me: Motivating Newcomer Contribution in Social Network Sites
What Facebook wanted to find out: How do we get newcomers to Facebook to stick around?
When it happened: 15 weeks starting in March 2008
How many users: 140,292 newcomers
How they did it: They invited 7 people in for face-to-face interviews about using Facebook. The rest simply had their clicks studied. They looked at the activity of a bunch of people who joined Facebook and stuck around for at least 3 months to see what they looked at on the site, who interacted with them and how, and what they contributed.
What Facebook found out: Facebook was surprised to discover that newcomers didn’t find it especially compelling to be tagged in photos, but they did really like getting comments on photos they uploaded. They basically looked to their friends’ activity to figure out what they were supposed to do on the site. It helps to show newcomers their friends adding, tagging and commenting on photos to addict them to the site. “It is vital for developers of social networking sites to encourage users to contribute content, as each individual’s experience is dependent on the contributions of that person’s particular set of connections,” they write.
WTF score: Low. This is exactly the kind of research you’d expect from Facebook: how do we addict people to this site? It’s a reminder to users though that on every site they are on, their every click may be getting measured and weighed, whether they’re a site virgin or not.

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There are lots of other studies that have come out of Facebook: Is fandom contagious? (Spoiler: Yes.) How many status updates are political? (Spoiler: Less than 1%) Can you predict if someone is lonely based on their Facebook activity? (Spoiler: Yes.) How close do you live to your Facebook friends and can your location be predicted based on their locations? (Kind of.)

As people have said before, a terrible outcome of this controversy would be that Facebook starts doing experiments secretly. I hope instead it leads to more transparency, corporate standards for running experiments, and the ability for users to opt in or out of being part of experiments, much like beta testers for new apps and hardware. Facebook could take a page from the Google Glass book and call those who are willing to be part of mass psychological experiments Facebook Explorers.

Follow @kashhill

02 Jul 00:00

Vanishing Water

by xkcd
Roslyn Cook

"Sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology."

Vanishing Water

What would happen if all the bodies of water on Earth magically disappeared?

—Joanna Xu

As is often the case with these questions, everyone would die.

The first people to notice would be swimmers and boaters, for obvious reasons.

To avoid a glass half empty scenario, we'll assume the water is replaced by air.

Most people swim in water which is relatively shallow, so most of them would survive the fall to the bottom, albeit with a few broken bones.[1]Those swimming in quarries and glacial lakes, on the other hand, could easily fall to their deaths a few feet from shore. People out on the ocean, on the other hand, would be in trouble.

The ones in shallow water would hit bottom first, since they wouldn't have as far to fall. Within the first second, a large fraction of the boats in lakes, rivers, and harbors would crash into the bottom, and many of those on board would survive.

Boats out on the ocean would take longer to fall. Over the next five seconds, a wave of crashes would spread outward from the continents, as boats struck the continental shelf farther and farther from shore. These boats would be smashed to tiny fragments, killing everyone on board.

After the first six or seven seconds, there would be a brief lull in the ship destruction rate. Continental shelves drop off steeply, and most of the ships out over the deep sea would take a little longer to fall.

The Titanic sank in about two miles of water. After it disappeared beneath the surface, the two halves of the ship took between 5 and 15 minutes to reach the bottom.[2]When the Titanic bow hit the sea floor, it was moving at almost exactly the same speed as when it struck the iceberg three hours earlier. (This is not quite a coincidence.) Without the ocean there, it would have reached the bottom in about 30 seconds, striking it at airliner cruising speed.[3]Although no one has ever dropped a cruise ship from a high altitude,[citation needed] their terminal velocity at the surface is probably a little below the speed of sound. Because the air in the ocean basins would be compressed, the terminal velocity of ships near the bottom would be lower than at the surface. This compression also means that to magically replace the water, you'd need more air than you'd expect from the ocean's volume alone, since it would need a varying density profile. In other words, your water-replacement spells will need to have some calculations behind them.

Sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

Within the first minute, just about every large ship would be on the bottom. The final boat to reach the bottom would probably be a small sailboat or life raft that was crossing an ocean trench when the water vanished. Thanks to low weight and/or drag from the sails, one of these vessels could take many minutes to reach the bottom.

If there were a seaplane floating on the deep ocean, it could conceivably survive, although it would take some luck and quick thinking by the pilot. The plane would initially drop, but as it gained speed it would tend to pull into a glide. After the initial shock, the pilot would have a reasonable amount of time to try to start the engine. Thanks in part to the thicker air, it's possible a seaplane could successfully land on a smooth patch of seabed. If the engine got started, the pilot could also try to fly to shore and land on a runway.

Fish, whales, and dolphins, and nearly all marine life would die immediately. Those near the bottom would suffocate or dessicate, while those near the surface in deeper water would suffer the same fate as boats.

Then the really weird stuff starts.

Without evaporation from lakes and oceans feeding the water cycle, it would stop raining. Without pools of water to drink from, people and most animals would dehydrate and die in a matter of days. Within a few weeks, plants would start withering in the ever-drier air. Within months, mass forest die-offs would begin.[4]Some drought-resistant trees could survive for years, but others wouldn't.

Huge amounts of dry, dead vegetation lead inevitably to fire, and within a few years, most of the world's forests would have burned. Forests store huge amounts of CO2, and this burning would roughly double the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, accelerating global warming.

All in all, Joanna's scenario would result in virtually all life dying out pretty fast. But then things would get even worse.

Without a water cycle to weather rocks, the carbon-silicate feedback system which acts as a long-term thermostat to stabilize climate[5]CO2 is added to the atmosphere by volcanoes (although at the moment, it's being added about ten times faster by people.) When water flows over certain rocks, chemical reactions suck CO2 from the air and eventually bury it in seafloor sediments. With less CO2, the planet gets colder. A colder planet means less evaporation, which means less weathering, which means CO2 removal slows down. This feedback loop—which operates over much longer timescales than human-caused climate change—is probably what's kept the Earth's temperature relatively stable over the last few billion years (give or take a few snowball Earths) even though the Sun has gotten hotter. would shut down. Without this feedback, volcanic CO2 would build up in our atmosphere, leading—in the long term—to scorching temperatures similar to what's happened on Venus.[6]Interestingly, because of Venus's lighter color (and thus higher reflectivity), it only absorbs about half the solar radiation that Earth does despite being substantially closer to the Sun. The thick blanket of CO2 in its atmosphere is what keeps it hot.

We were going to lose our oceans anyway. As the Sun gets hotter, eventually water will start escaping through evaporation, and—one way or another—the planet will dry out and heat up. However, the loss of the oceans never seemed like something worth worrying too much about, since it's a billion years in the future. The oceans will be here long after our species is gone.

Unless Joanna ruins everything.

01 Jul 07:47

Subpar Captain America

by Nathan Yau
Roslyn Cook

Amazing.

Animation Domination High-Def has a Captain America video of things that America is not so good at, relative to other countries. And they even cited their data source, the CIA World Factbook. How about that.

25 Jun 15:40

Life 1967 Vol. 62, No. 18

Roslyn Cook

So great.



Life

1967 Vol. 62, No. 18

27 Feb 12:41

Harold Ramis's advice to young artists

via Mother Jones > @janetpierson:

You have to live your life with a certain blind confidence that if it’s your destiny to succeed at these things, it will happen, if you just continue to follow a straight path, to do you work as conscientiously and as creatively as you can, and to just stay open to all opportunity and experience. There’s a performing motto at Second City…to say yes instead of no. It’s actually an improvisational rule…It’s about supporting the other person. And the corollary to that is if you concentrate on making other people look good, then we all have the potential to look good. If you’re just worried about yourself—How am I doing? How am I doing?—which is kind of a refrain in Hollywood, you know, people are desperately trying to make their careers in isolation, independent of everyone around them.

And I’ve always found that my career happened as a result of a tremendous synergy of all the talented people I’ve worked with, all helping each other, all connecting, and reconnecting in different combinations. So…identify talented people around you and then instead of going into competition with them, or trying to wipe them out, make alliances, make creative friendships that allow you and your friends to grow together, because someday your friend is going to be sitting across a desk from you running a movie studio.

Ramis is quoted in the “Stand Next To The Talent” section of Steal Like An Artist.

08 Jan 22:30

Chart of the Day: Name Origins of the 50 States

Chart of the Day: Name Origins of the 50 States

Of the 50 United States, the etymology is rather wide spread. Business Insider has put together an interesting list to explain the origin and meaning of each.

Submitted by: Unknown