Are you in a social media experiment?

social media experiment

The answer to this question is, of course, YES.

Whether you know it or not, companies are collecting data about you, testing you, even manipulating you without your knowledge. The bigger question is, how far should they go … and how much should you know?

I attended a fascinating discussion on this topic with a number of social media researchers at SXSW. Combining psychometrics and Big Data analysis, here is a small sample of what companies can now discern about you simply from your public social media stream:

  • If your parents were divorced before you were 21 …. based solely on what you like on Facebook (Likes are public information)
  • The probability that your current relationship will fail
  • How likely you are to quit your job
  • The probability that you have lung disease
  • If you are likely to experience depression
  • If you will get promoted at work
  • By simply analyzing the words you use in your tweets, an algorithm can define your location within 200 miles and within 40 miles if you add the entire social graph — even if you never disclose your location.

So companies, employers, and the government can tell a lot about you from what you post … and even from what you don’t post. I saw a demonstration that composed a detailed profile of a “locked down” individual based on what OTHERs were posting about him or through image recognition when he accidentally showed up in others photos or videos.

Essentially, companies don’t even need you to be active on social to know you very well. They can form a pretty good profile simply from the social media exhaust.

Now all of this seems a little spooky but probably harmless. It’s observational. You could chalk it up to the price that you pay for being a digital citizen and all the free benefits you receive. But what about when it’s not just observational?

Yes, you are a social media lab rat

What happens when companies manipulate conditions on the web to manipulate you? The most famous example of this was the much-discussed revelation that Facebook was experimenting with newsfeed stories to test the emotional reaction of readers.

If a university had done this experiment, it would have required an extensive approval process which includes prior consent of the participants and it would have probably been disavowed since it included minors.

But a company is not subject to the same legal constraints on human experimentation. Without question, we are being tested and prodded in some way every day.

Some argue that this experimentation is no different from advertising, which tries to manipulate an emotion. But I think there is a nuanced point here — Trust. We inherently don’t trust ads and we can choose to look away. But the Internet has become a utility like phone service or electricity. Some say it is a human right. Shoudn’t we be able to trust that a basic human service should leave our emotions alone?

Who owns you?

With all of the personality testing and analysis taking place on the web, will your social media footprint soon determine your ability to get a job, find a mate, buy a home, or obtain insurance?

Will we be immersed in “little brother worlds” where your TVs, Barbie dolls, home appliances, and cars listen to you and your family and take control of your personal data?

If you don’t think you’re a social media lab rat, sign in to and check out your profile. How employable are you? How lovable are you? How smart are you? The Internet already knows.

Let me know what you think about this in the comment section …

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