The Ethics Of Facebook’s Emotion-Manipulation Research


I’ve railed against Facebook many times on this blog, and in 2010’s “Facebook: Beyond The Last Straw“), I promised I would stop. I managed to keep that promise for nearly four years, but I’ve been roused to rail once again by the confluence of four different interests I happen to have: emotion research (one of my philosophical activities), ethics (a subject I teach), federal regulations covering university research (which I help to administer by being on my university’s Institutional Research Board) and the internet (which, of course, I constantly use).

In case you haven’t yet heard, what Facebook did was to manipulate the “news feeds” users received from their friends, eliminating items with words associated with either positive emotions or negative emotions, and then observing the degree to which the manipulated users subsequently employed such positive or negative vocabulary in their own posts. Facebook’s main goal was to disconfirm a hypothesis suggested by previous researchers that users would be placed in a negative mood by their friends’ positive news items, or in a positive mood by their friends’ negative news items. As I understand it, the results did disconfirm that hypothesis, and confirmed the opposite one (namely, that users would be placed in congruent rather than incongruent mood states by reading their friends’ positive or negative news items), but just barely.

Although I find this methodology questionable on a number of grounds, apparently peer-reviewers did not. The research was published in a reputable journal. More interesting to me are the ethical implications of Facebook’s having used their users as guinea pigs this way.

The best article I’ve found on the net about the ethical issues raised by this experiment was written as an opinion piece on Wired by Michelle N. Meyer, Director of Bioethics Policy in the Union Graduate College-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Bioethics Program. Meyer is writing specifically about the question of whether the research, which involved faculty from several universities whose human-subject research is federally regulated, could have (and should have) been approved under the relevant regulations. Ultimately, she argues that it both could have and should have, assuming that the manipulation posed minimal risk (relative to other manipulations users regularly undergo on Facebook and other sites). Her only caveat is that more specific consent should have been obtained from the subjects (without giving away the manipulation involved), and some debriefing should have occurred afterward. If you’re interested in her reasoning, which at first glance I find basically sound, I encourage you to read the whole article. Meyer’s bottom line is this-

We can certainly have a conversation about the appropriateness of Facebook-like manipulations, data mining, and other 21st-century practices. But so long as we allow private entities to engage freely in these practices, we ought not unduly restrain academics trying to determine their effects. Recall those fear appeals I mentioned above. As one social psychology doctoral candidate noted on Twitter, IRBs make it impossible to study the effects of appeals that carry the same intensity of fear as real-world appeals to which people are exposed routinely, and on a mass scale, with unknown consequences. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. What corporations can do at will to serve their bottom line, and non-profits can do to serve their cause, we shouldn’t make (even) harder—or impossible—for those seeking to produce generalizable knowledge to do.

My only gripe with this is that it doesn’t push strongly enough for the sort of “conversation” mentioned in the first line. The ways in which social media sites – and other internet sites – can legally manipulate their users without their specific consent is, as far as I can tell, entirely unregulated. Yes, the net should be open and free, but manipulation of the sort Facebook engaged in undermines rather than enhances user freedom. We shouldn’t expect to be able to avoid every attempt to influence our emotions, but there is an important difference between (for instance) being exposed to an ad as a price of admission, and having the information one’s friends intended you to see being edited, unbeknownst to you or your friends, for some third party’s ulterior purpose.

More Fun With Frax


I’ve been slow on the posts lately, but it is summertime (when the livin’ is supposedly easy), so perhaps I can be forgiven. To avoid having nothing in my June folder, however, here are a few images I came up with exploring Frax, the endlessly fascinating iPhone app-

“It’s Alive!”





Shadow-Selfie On Bike


Yet another sign of Spring…

Shadow Selfie On Bike 480

And here is a blossoming tree for no good reason (except for the fact that my iPhone camera happened capture an exceptionally smooth, deep blue gradient sky in the background).

Tree Blossoms

Burger King Meets Sartre: To Be or To Have?


File this under “odd confluences of marketing and philosophy”…

BK Question

As both a fan of the BK Veggie (at least when starving and passing through a small town with only fast food restaurants and no Subway) and a philosophy professor, I found this news item almost as interesting as it is just plain weird: Burger King, in its infinite corporate wisdom, has decided to change its catch-phrase from “Have It Your Way” to “Be Your Way”. apparently got the scoop-

Fernando Machado, SVP_Global Brand Management, told that the new tagline is the result of a company reexamination of its brand and its relationship with its customers. “Burger King is a look-you-in-the-eyes brand, a relaxed and a friendly brand. It is approachable and welcoming,” he said. “So we wanted the positioning to reflect that closeness. We elevated ‘Have It Your Way’ to ‘Be Your Way’ because it is a richer expression of the relationship between our brand and our customers. We’ll still make it your way, but the relationship is deeper than that.”

Sure, Be Your Way: be obese, be diabetic, be wasteful, be oblivious (except, of course, when you order the Veggie). We’ll take your money, however you are. Of course, “Have It Your Way” has its own share of unfortunate associations: have a heart attack, have a stroke, have gastric distress… But what seems to be moving the advertisers here is rather this: since being indicates a “deeper relationship” than having, and therefore since what you are is likely to be more important to you than merely what you have, emphasizing being over having should lead you to desire a Whopper more than you would were you still stumbling into one their establishments under the less efficacious spell of their traditional catch-phrase. However, the relationship between desiring, being, and having can be tricky, as Jean-Paul Sartre made abundantly clear in his epic Existentialist tome, Being and Nothingness. Here’s a quick summary of his view on this, courtesy of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy-

For Sartre, the lover seeks to possess the loved one [or the loved burger – ed.] and thus integrate her into his being: this is the satisfaction of desire. He simultaneously wishes the loved one nevertheless remain beyond his being as the other he desires, i.e. he wishes to remain in the state of desiring. These are incompatible aspects of desire: the being of desire is therefore incompatible with its satisfaction.

So… do the advertisers really want to short-circuit the desiring process, and prematurely emphasize being over having? But wait… the plot thickens-

In the lengthier discussion on the topic “Being and Having,” Sartre differentiates between three relations to an object that can be projected in desiring. These are being, doing and having. Sartre argues that relations of desire aimed at doing are reducible to one of the other two types. His examination of these two types can be summarised as follows. Desiring expressed in terms of being is aimed at the self. And desiring expressed in terms of having is aimed at possession. But an object is possessed insofar as it is related to me by an internal ontological bond… Through that bond, the object is represented as my creation. The possessed object is represented both as part of me and as my creation. With respect to this object, I am therefore viewed both as an in-itself [an inert, untroubled thing – ed.] and as endowed with freedom. The object is thus a symbol of the subject’s being, which presents it in a way that conforms with the aims of the fundamental project [that is, the impossible project of being God, who alone can be conscious of something without being alienated from it – ed.]. Sartre can therefore subsume the case of desiring to have under that of desiring to be, and we are thus left with a single type of desire, that for being.

So, ultimately, if desiring to have is reducible to desiring to be, the advertisers might be wasting their time – much ado about nothing. Or is that much ado about nothingness?

You Know It’s Spring When…


So, every Spring for the last ten years I’ve witnessed the return of this beautiful bird, as I did driving back from Madison today-

An Audubon Society Photo

An Audubon Society Photo

And every time I’ve witnessed its return, I’ve idly wondered what sort of bird it is. I’ve asked local friends, but they’ve never given me an answer. Of course, it looked like some sort of blackbird (duh!). But how to describe its colorful markings? It’s not a red and yellow wing-tip. It’s more of a red and yellow wing-shoulder… But I’ve always been reluctant to describe it that way, since it’s certainly not in any anatomical sense a shoulder. Tonight I finally googled “red-winged blackbird” just to see if that inaccurate, misleading description might narrow down the choices. It did: surprisingly, this bird is generally called (in English) a “red-winged blackbird“. Officially, it’s called agelaius phoeniceus. This is its mating territory, and in a month or so it will be literally everywhere you look; wisely, it winters down in Baja California and northwest Mexico.

More aptly, its French name is “Carouge à épaulettes”. ‘Épaulettes’ means “shoulder pads” (which is at least more accurate here than ‘shoulder’ would be), but ‘carouge’ does not show up in any of the French dictionaries I’ve checked. It does contain the word ‘rouge’, which means ‘red’. Apparently, there is a single village in Europe named Carouge, and in an interesting twist of fate, it’s on the outskirts of Geneva, only a mile or so from where I stayed for a week last summer. Carouge has been called the “Greenwich Village” of Switzerland. I’ll be returning to the area next Fall to do some research at the Université de Genève, and will be sure to visit. Stay tuned for further reports on this bizarre coincidence.

In the meantime, welcome back, red-winged blackbirds! Happy breeding! You’ve been missed.

Sting Ponders The Multiverse


As a rule, musicals tend to strike me as amusing at best (Passing Strange aside), and only time will tell whether Sting and his cohort of Broadway pros can pull off the rare feat of successfully marrying rock, pop, or folk songs to an emotionally resonant and theatrically stageable story. But the more I listen to the numbers Sting has written for his The Last Ship project, the more they grow on me. You can listen to many of those songs, performed live by Sting and several cast members, on this American Masters episode. Meanwhile, here’s one of the more thought-provoking and suggestive songs from the album (not included in the Great Performances episode), one that demonstrates how a talented – and well-read – songwriter (or two) can relate an interpretation of quantum physics to a theme with a lot of poetic and dramatic potential: how choices create universes, and how those universes might be related to parallel universes not only physically, but – more humanly – by relief, or regret, or resignation, or…

“It’s Not The Same Moon”
by Sting and Rob Mathes

Did you ever hear the theory of the universe?
Where every time you make a choice,
A brand new planet gets created?
Did you ever hear that theory?
Does it carry any sense?
That a choice can split the world in two,
Or is it all just too immense for you?

That they all exist in parallel,
Each one separate from the other,
And every subsequent decision,
Makes a new world then another,
And they all stretch out towards infinity,
Getting further and further away.

Now, were a man to reconsider his position,
And try to spin the world back to its original state?
It’s not a scientific proposition,
And relatively speaking…you’re late.

It’s not the same moon in the sky,
And these are different stars,
And these are different constellations,
From the ones that you’ve described.
Different rules of navigation,
Strange coordinates and lines,
A completely different zodiac,
Of unfamiliar signs.

It’s not the same moon in the sky,
And those planets are misleading,
I wouldn’t even try to take a bearing or a reading,
Just accept that things are different,
You’ve no choice but to comply,
When smarter men have failed to see,
The logic as to why.

It’s not the same moon,
It’s not the same moon,
In the sky.

Occam’s Razor And Malaysia Airlines Flight 370


Who knows, at this point, just what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370? Only one thing seems clear as the media has ascended to ever-higher flights of fancy about it: no one seems to want to ruin a good yarn by promoting the simplest available hypothesis (as Occam’s razor would prescribe), no one, that is, except Chris Goodfellow in this Wired post-

The left turn is the key here. Zaharie Ahmad Shah was a very experienced senior captain with 18,000 hours of flight time. We old pilots were drilled to know what is the closest airport of safe harbor while in cruise. Airports behind us, airports abeam us, and airports ahead of us. They’re always in our head. Always. If something happens, you don’t want to be thinking about what are you going to do–you already know what you are going to do. When I saw that left turn with a direct heading, I instinctively knew he was heading for an airport. He was taking a direct route to Palau Langkawi, a 13,000-foot airstrip with an approach over water and no obstacles. The captain did not turn back to Kuala Lampur because he knew he had 8,000-foot ridges to cross. He knew the terrain was friendlier toward Langkawi, which also was closer.

For me, the loss of transponders and communications makes perfect sense in a fire. And there most likely was an electrical fire. In the case of a fire, the first response is to pull the main busses and restore circuits one by one until you have isolated the bad one. If they pulled the busses, the plane would go silent. It probably was a serious event and the flight crew was occupied with controlling the plane and trying to fight the fire. Aviate, navigate, and lastly, communicate is the mantra in such situations.

What I think happened is the flight crew was overcome by smoke and the plane continued on the heading, probably on George (autopilot), until it ran out of fuel or the fire destroyed the control surfaces and it crashed. You will find it along that route–looking elsewhere is pointless.

If you’re curious about the details of this relatively reasonable hypothesis, read the whole story.

Religious Psychedelia


If you’re interested religious psychedelia (or even just awesome interior design), check out this Huffington Post article on the Nasir al-Mulk “Pink Mosque” in Shiraz, Iran. Here’s a sample, and by no means the most jaw-dropping one-


This photo, “Spiritual Colors No.3″, is by Amirhossein Karimzadeh Fard, more of whose work can be found here.

Jason Isbell’s “Elephant”


I heard Jason Isbell play “Elephant” on an NPR show a few months back, bought it on iTunes and didn’t listen to it again until recently. Some tout it as the best song ever written about cancer (not that there’s much competition on that score), but I’ve come to think of it as one of the better songs ever written about a rare sort of friendship.

Here’s a well-recorded live version from SiriusXM radio. Please excuse the obscenities, by which I mean the embedded ads, the first of which can be clicked away, the second of which will fade on its own-

She said Andy you’re better than your past,
winked at me and drained her glass,
cross-legged on the barstool, like nobody sits anymore.
She said Andy you’re taking me home,
but I knew she planned to sleep alone
I’d carry her to bed, sweep up the hair from the floor.

If I’d fucked her before she got sick,
I’d never hear the end of it.
She don’t have the spirit for that now.
We drink these drinks and laugh out loud,
bitch about the weekend crowd,
and try to ignore the elephant somehow…

She said Andy you crack me up,
Seagrams in a coffee cup,
sharecropper eyes and her hair almost all gone.
When she was drunk she made cancer jokes,
she made up her own doctor’s notes,
surrounded by her family
I saw that she was dying alone.

I’d sing her classic country songs
and she’d get high and sing along.
She don’t have much voice to sing with now.
We’d burn these joints in effigy,
cry about what we used to be,
try to ignore the elephant somehow…

I buried her a thousand times,
giving up my place in line,
but I don’t give a damn about that now.
There’s one thing that’s real clear to me-
no one dies with dignity,
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow…
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow…
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow…

Philosophers Ride Unicorns To Work


I usually teach two books in my “Contemporary Philosophy” class: A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, and Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity. Ayer’s book nicely illustrates the limits of verificationist semantics, the problems with phenomenalism, and the futility of trying to eliminate metaphysics from philosophy. Kripke’s book shows how metaphysics survived – and ultimately exploited – the “linguistic turn” taken by 20th century analytic philosophy. One thing that both books have in common, however, is at least a passing concern with unicorns.


Ayer uses the sentence “Unicorns are fictitious” to illustrate how surface grammar can systematically mislead philosophers into spouting metaphysical nonsense (e.g., that since ‘unicorns’ seems to be the subject of this sentence, they must “have a mode of real being which is different from the mode of existing things”). Kripke, on the other hand, uses his scientific essentialism to argue that unicorns not only do not actually exist; they could not even possibly exist.

Well, we were talking about Ayer’s discussion of unicorns in class today, and Shannon, one my sharpest students, later tweeted me that “‘Back to the unicorns’ is something one only hears in Harry Potter or philosophy classes”, to which I responded with “Indeed…”, followed by the title of this post.

This got me thinking, though: just how extensively are unicorns used in the philosophical literature? (There’s a book to be written here, if it hasn’t already been published). To get a rough idea, I did a quick search of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of my favorite resources), and found that the mythological creatures trot onto that particular stage in no less than twenty-nine – count ‘em, 29 – different topics! Here’s a link to the list, for all of you unicorn junkies out there.

Bill Murray On The Hardest Job In The World


In his Charlie Rose interview last week, Bill Murray said the following while trying to describe his experiences on the set of George Clooney’s latest picture The Monuments Men-

“It’s fun to watch someone like John Goodman, who is such a natural actor, and yet it takes work… you know, people say: ‘He’s not acting, he’s just being himself’… Well, it’s hard to be yourself, it’s hard to be yourself, you know what I mean? It’s impossible, it’s the hardest job in the world.”

Five Years A Blog


Five years, as of today… that’s how long I’ve been posting items of personal interest to this online scrapbook. I’ve been engaging in this exercise mostly just for myself and friends, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many posts have been of interest to total strangers. Google Analytics informs me that there have been, on a monthly average, around 266 page views by 154 unique visitors; hardly more than a blip in the universe of internet statistics, but enough to make me think that there is something here of value to someone other than myself. If you’re a returning visitor (around 20% of the total), odds are I know you from elsewhere, and I hope you’ll keep in touch by other means as well. If I don’t know you and you’ve stumbled upon something amusing or interesting here, I’m glad.

I know that the odds are against it, but I sometimes imagine that 10,000 years from now, an internet archeologist might dig up one of my fossilized posts, and it will help to confirm or disconfirm some obscure hypothesis about life at the start of the 21st century. We now leave digital traces of ourselves, much like cave dwellers left a few palm prints on the walls. Let’s hope that the walls of our digital caves turn out to be as solid as their stone ones.

Fun With Frax


If you own an iPhone or an iPad and have ever had the urge to release your inner graphic artist… the one you’ve kept hidden since you were 5 years old and discovered you couldn’t draw worth s#*t… then you absolutely must shell out a whopping $2 and download a copy of Frax, the amazing little iOS app that allows you to create an infinite variety of fractal images using gestures, tilt, and a few simple controls. Once created, you can save your masterpieces to your photo library, or upload them to the Frax Cloud and have them rendered in ultra-high, poster-sized resolution.

Here’s an image I created in about five minutes, just trying to learn how to use the app (which has very helpful instructions embedded into it). To see what people who actually know what they’re doing with the app can come up with, check out the gallery at the Frax site.

First Try With Frax

“Her” and Him (Alan Watts, that is)


I found “Her”, Spike Jonze’s new movie, somewhat difficult to sit through. It feels too long (so little happens), and it treads a very thin line between a psychologically rich character study and a Saturday Night Live parody of a cliché romance. Also, the overall look of the film is bland, as if it were covered with a gray-filter. It’s too dimly lit in many scenes. In fact, one key scene happens entirely in the dark, a stylistic choice I couldn’t help but see as a sign of Jonze’s embarrassment with the scene’s content. No doubt the somberness of much of the indoor photography is meant to underscore protagonist Theodore’s extremely introverted personality. But it’s overkill: Joaquin Phoenix’s spot-on Theodore needs no extra help.

Yet, despite these problems, “Her” is, to my mind, perhaps the most thought-provoking Hollywood film released this year, with the possible exception of 12 Years A Slave (which I blogged about here). I say this even though in most ways Her is the opposite of my favorite Jonze film, 2004’s Adaptation. That movie had an almost frenetic energy; it was saturated by the sub-tropical colors of South Florida, it had a very complex structure (thanks to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman), and it centered on two (or three?) eccentric protagonists, played with all the requisite bravado by Nicholas Cage and Chris Cooper. Her, on the other hand, just plods along, without much to look at (a Scarlett-Johansson-shaped video image of Samantha might have helped a lot in that respect), with the simplest possible structure, and only two substantial characters, one of which is invisible, the other of which is rarely expressive.

But what I like about “Her” is its heartfelt exploration of intimacy, an exploration that goes deeper than what is generally found in your standard relationship flick (which, I admit, is not saying much). The film raises the question of whether it would be possible to be really intimate with the user interface of an operating system (to get some sense of Johansson’s silicon-based Samantha, just imagine Apple’s SIRI on both intellectual- and emotional-IQ steroids). But the film is more centrally concerned about the loss of human intimacy in our ever more technologically-mediated world, and that is an even worthier subject. Samantha and Theodore’s dialog reminds us, somewhat poignantly, of what a genuinely intimate relationship at least sounds like – something that’s sorely lacking not only from most other films, but also from many lives. The only thing missing from Theodore and Samantha’s relationship (besides a body, of course) seems at first to be any element of danger. For surely nothing could be less dangerous than a relationship with an entity pre-programmed to satisfy one’s every need. Theodore apparently need not fear that Samantha will ever leave him like his ex-wife did, but there’s the rub: how could such an apparently “failsafe” relationship ever really be fulfilling?

It’s the particular way in which the film first raises and then answers (or subverts) that question that makes it worth watching, and helps to excuse its weaknesses. Here’s the trailer-

Near the end of the film there’s an important reference to Alan Watts, the mid-20th century intellectual, ex-theologician, and pre-New Age disseminator of Asian religious traditions and metaphysical views. For those unfamiliar with Watts’ work, the brief description of him given in the film might suffice for the script’s purposes (though I doubt it). But for those at least passingly familiar with his life and work, the reference will have all sorts of rich resonances, and suggest several different levels on which to interpret the ending. The most obvious level has to do with Watts’ charismatic charm, which seems to have been accompanied by a (no doubt philosophically motivated) lack of shame. The second, slightly less obvious level rides on Watts’ trenchant criticisms of Western Culture, which he viewed as both a cause and effect of its average member’s confusion and neurosis. His prescription was, quite simply, to become enlightened in the down-to-earth, Zen sense he himself clearly sought. Finally, a third level of interpretation rides on the similarity between Samantha and Theodore that Samantha at one point says comforts her. To jump aboard this train of thought, you need to focus on Watts’ thesis that reality is, ultimately, One (a “monistic” worldview that a Buddhist need not accept). To avoid falling into didactic mode, I’ll just add that these three levels of interpretation are, I think, complementary. They leave Theodore with much more to mull over beyond the picture’s ending than just the promises and pitfalls of romantic attachments. The only problem is that the reference to Watts and the relevance of his personality and worldview is such “inside baseball”, the resonances that finally sold me on the film will probably not occur to most of the film’s audience. I’m not sure that they even occurred to the filmmakers.

If you’ve never heard an Alan Watts talk, here’s a 10-minute audio excerpt I once used in an adult enrichment class that focused on his fusion of Eastern and Western perspectives. At one point he mentions “the ceramic myth” and “the fully automatic myth” – ideas he explains earlier in the talk. By the first he just means the monotheistic story that God created the universe (much as people create ceramics). By the second he’s referring to the Newtonian view of the universe as a dumb, fully automatic machine, devoid of consciousness. In this excerpt, the two main themes he riffed on throughout his career – the mental illness of Western culture, and the metaphysical monism (supported by ecology and post-Newtonian physics) that could be part of the cure – are on full display.

Much more Watts is available here. For my own previous posts on Watts, just search for his name using the Search box above.