The perils of social sharing

We're always warning people not to “overshare” online, lest they limit their future job opportunities,  expose themselves to fraud, or just gross us out. Now there's another reason not to share: to avoid being tricked and manipulated by the very Web services you use.

The revelation by university researchers that Facebook had allowed user feeds to be manipulated in order to see just how bad a day they could create for hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting people was a reminder that companies touting online services should be viewed with heaping doses of skepticism. The case has raised some serious ethical issues—human experimentation of this sort usually requires the consent of the participants—and questions about whether the Facebook psychological exploit generated any incidents of cyberbullying or suicide. But it also served as a reminder that Web services don't usually deliver what they claim they deliver--or imply that they deliver.

At a talk last month at Harvard University given by researchers from several universities, the presenters reminded attendees that Facebook constantly manipulates, edits, and exploits the feeds that its users see. You are not actually allowed to see everything your friends post. Simple algorithms are at work, guessing your interests, inclinations and proclivities. Even close friends and family posts are blocked, although most people (more than half) do not realize their feeds are manipulated.

So Aunt Wendy, I'm not ignoring you, it's just that Facebook won't let me see your posts. Honest.

Taking the experimentation one step further and out into the real world, the folks who run the dating site OkCupid decided it would be interesting to intentionally set people up on terrible dates. Claiming that the site uses “math to get you dates” it actually was treating people like lab rats, purposely creating mismatched couples while telling the unwitting participants they had found their soulmates. Why? Because, in the same vein of kids who pull the wings off of flies, they wanted to see what would happen. And tweak their software accordingly.

All this algorithmic chicanery is in the name of targeted marketing and advertising. They are not just trying to make your life miserable without reason. If they can just push the right emotional buttons, you'll buy more things. Depressed by your Facebook feed? How about an uplifting movie and some ice cream? Disappointed by your last date? How about a mani-pedi or joining a new fitness club?

Neither Facebook nor OkCupid has unreservedly apologized or promised not to experiment with users again. On the contrary, the consensus among these companies and others like them is that this is how business is done; marketing is primary, users are just data. Indeed, the problem is so endemic that social and computer science researchers like those that presented at Harvard argue that these algorithms should be audited to prevent discrimination and abuse.

Until that begins to happen, we could share a lot less with these companies, at least until they prove they are worthy of our trust. Or, we could just remind ourselves never to trust the digital economy and feed it lots of erroneous information. I have several FB friends who use false birthdays and even maintain the charade, accepting birthday wishes on their fake birthdays. Take that, darned algorithm!

Or in the vein of JenniCam and the acceptance that every part of our lives will be exposed online, we could go the other way and become completely transparent. No cyber secrets, at least from your paramour. There's now a program for couples that want to go the digital see-through route and share everything with each other online. Called mCouple, the app lets your partner see your personal texts, phone calls, e-mail, FB chats, pictures, and location, 24/7. It even works if you're Android and she's iOS. Talk about trust.

The question is, are you willing to share and share alike and be an online guinea pig?