Extensive is litany of columns, editorials and explainers criticizing the way Facebook and Cornell University partners, studied the effect of an decreased proportion of emotional messages in news feeds on statuses.
In this experiment conducted in 2012, gained attention June 10 after a news release from Cornell University trumpeting its findings, Facebook changed the algorithm that already decides what we see and what we don’t see to ensure we didn’t see certain content. There were four groups in this study: A group that had negative statuses removed. A group that had positive statuses removed. And, two control groups that had random emotional content content removed.
The results in a nutshell: The group that had negativity removed from its newsfeed posted more positive words in its statuses than its control group. Similarly, the group that had positivity removed from its newsfeed posted more negative words in statuses than its control group. (The full study is available here: http://bit.ly/1j1Xd6k .)
Before the July Fourth holiday weekend, the publishing journal issued a statement saying it too had concerns about the procedures of the experiment.
But, the results have seen little discussion. So, let me talk a moment about what the study actually found. Because it does have something to contribute to our understanding of social psychology and can have implications for how we each approach our behavior online.
This Big Data study found when 10 percent of negative statuses were removed, a little less than 5.3 percent of words used were positive, which was more than the control group. The effect of increasing the proportion of negative statuses was weaker. The authors call this effect emotional contagion.
Authors found stronger evidence of contagion in a different study of Facebook users published in March. In that study, researchers looked at people who posted on rainy days. They found connections between the weather and positive or negative emotion in posts, but they also found the emotion of those posts also spread to friends who lived in other cities. The authors concluded that a status update with a positive emotion led one or two friends in other cities to also post a positive status.
These studies join a number of studies that show positivity spreads online.
We already knew online users liked feeling good. Remember that this most recent Facebook study had two control groups? That was needed statistically because Facebook content is overwhelmingly positive. The situation is similar on Twitter.
Similarly, we’re more willing to share positive content. For example, readers share New York Times stories with positive emotions more than those with negative emotions. And, positive YouTube videos get more views than negative ones. But, now we’re learning that those emotions – not just the content – get shared.
Which points to an interesting paradox. As humans, we have a tendency to compare ourselves to others – pretty much constantly. When we compare ourselves to the constant feed of people taking tropical vacations, having the wedding we always dreamed of, or buying the car we have been saving for, we can feel deflated. These types of comparisons to others have a distinctly negative effect on many people.
So how can we deal with this constant barrage of happiness?
First, face reality. Remember these studies have found what you see on social media over represents the positive. For the most part, people don’t post the mundane or seriously negative parts of their lives as much as they do the splashy, glossy parts. So when you see that tropical cruise photo, remember that behind the smiles are hours at a second job or a credit card bill that won’t get Instagramed.
Second, be confident in your own accomplishments. Social comparison theories – which started long before social media in the 1950s – say we are most likely to let our emotions be influenced by others when we feel uncertain about ourselves. We also know from a 2011 study done at Cornell University that spending just three minutes looking at your own Facebook page can boost your self-esteem. Remembering your recent home purchase can ward off depression about the Joneses new Jaguar.
Third, use positivity for inspiration. People with high self-esteem use these types of upward social comparisons as motivation to do better, rather than letting feelings of jealousy or envy creep in.
Fourth, consider why you are spreading negativity. A study of the spread of YouTube videos found negative messages were more likely to be spread when they concerned an out group. In that National Science Foundation study, the out group was simply a student from a rival university. But, in your life, that out group might be a racial, ideological or religious. Would you spread that message if it was about one of your peers?
Finally, use your power for good. Positive vibes are catchy. So don’t hesitate to offer words of support to a friend in need when you feel comfortable doing so. Though it might feel like a worthless gesture, from what we’re learning about online emotion it might really mean something to your friends.