Big data has been the lifeblood of social networks, and that data is incredibly useful to companies. So much so that companies like Facebook and OkCupid are interested in experimenting with this data — without informing users. But perhaps these tech companies are taking for granted — and abusing — the relationship they have with their users.
While Facebook isn’t the first company to conduct experiments on its users, the news has certainly provided insight into how big data companies operate. Facebook conducted a study where it altered the rates at which people saw negative or positive posts within their feeds. The study caused an uproar, despite the fact that the filtering only caused a 0.07 percent change to moods, according to YouTube’s SciShow.
Not every experiment brings about astonishing results. However, the data is worth the trouble of harvesting because exploiting it is where the value lies. Still, few users take into consideration that using a social network is a transaction between users and the company. According to journalist Tim Carmody, users have the whole transaction backward when it comes to social networks: They’re not free because there’s a trade taking place.
“Because ultimately, the reason you needed me to agree [to the ToS] in the first place isn’t just because I’m using your software, but because you’re using my stuff. And the reason I’m letting you use my stuff, and spending all this time working on it, is so that you can show it to people,” Carmody writes. When the networks exploit that data in ways users hadn’t imagined, there are plenty of reasons to be upset.
Social networks make the argument that nobody reads the Terms of Service (ToS), or users are totally happy to give them all these permissions — neither is necessarily the case. The argument from OkCupid is that if you use the Internet, you’re being experimented on, which is apparently no big deal.
When conducting these data experiments, companies are experimenting on humans, often without their knowledge or permission. The language in ToS pages is often deliberately cryptic so no one will read it, or so broad that these experiments can be justified after the fact. Carmody says this way of thinking is a rot among the tech community, and this results in lost trust among uses who end up being treated like a data point.
“They don’t recognize or respect that the users are also the ones who’ve made almost everything that those sites show. They only treat you as a customer, never a client.”