Internet Social Media

Good To Know: Facebook May Be Experimenting On You

Joshua Lockhart 18-12-2012

facebook experimentsOccasionally, we all get a bit worried about our privacy on the Internet. Who’s watching us? Why are they watching us? How can we prevent them from watching us? The reality is that most of information people know is because we let them know. One example of this that comes to mind is Facebook, of course.


It’s a given that Facebook has opened the door for big businesses to get in touch with their customers on a more personal level. After years of using simple surveys and sales records for demographic data, their social media following was added to the mix. With this kind of access to consumers, a new wave of social advertising exists using one simple word: Like. However, it’s not just businesses who are watching. Facebook is, too.

A Sociologist’s Playground

facebook experiments

As you may know, Facebook pages offer a variety of data types regarding demographics to their owners. Some of this information about the individual fans includes:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Countries
  • Cities
  • Language

At a surface level, this is very basic. Demographics typically utilize these types of data results anyway. The only difference is that every single bit of this data was acquired through entirely voluntary methods without the use of surveys, focus groups, or field research. Of course, that’s just basic demographic information. The social network has also created an entire sector of marketing targeted solely at the site. With that in mind, companies need to know exactly how well their page promotion efforts are working.

For that purpose, Facebook offers another set of data for page owners:

  • Likes per week
  • Post reach
  • People talking about your page

As a given, this is only basic information that any average user could find if they wanted to create their own page. Facebook’s data collection goes a bit deeper than all this.

The Facebook Data Team

facebook users

Led by Cameron Marlow, deep within the many levels of Facebook is a small little group of about 12 researchers called the Facebook Data Team. Essentially, the entire purpose of his team is to collect general data from Facebook users’ actions. This data is very intricate and complete, and the type of information that they collect is actually very surprising.

At face value, the team “builds scalable platforms for the collection, management, and analysis of data” and “use[s] these platforms to help drive informed decisions in areas critical to the success of the company.”


On a vaguer note, the team also states that they “build tools and provide support for anyone at Facebook who would like to use our platforms to help make data-driven decisions or build data-intensive products and services.”

The team researches social media sharing patterns on a relatively consistent basis. For instance, their current Facebook cover photo appears to be cluster graph of sorts. In actuality, it’s a just section of a graph depicting the viral nature of the “what-my-friends-think-I-do” meme that recently took News Feeds by storm.

[Facebook Data Science]

What’s Collected

facebook users


I’m sure by now that you are begging to know the answer to this question: what does Facebook know about me?

Well, there’s the obvious stuff that we already covered. All of the standard demographic information (age, gender, etc.) is handed over to Facebook when you joined the site. Additionally, you can offer up information about the family members you have on Facebook, relationships that you are in, historical events on your timeline, and even products you buy. This may not seem like a lot, but much like pennies in a jar, this information adds up.

But that’s not all Facebook collects. Using a tool called open graph integration, Facebook creates a type of personal “web” that connects all of a user’s Facebook-connected activities across the Internet. Each time you allow an app access to your Facebook account or use something Facebook-related on another website, this is part of open graph.

So whenever you play a song using an app like Spotify, Songza or Deezer, Facebook knows you listened to it regardless of whether you “liked” it or shared it with anyone. This allows for Facebook to view societal trends.


At its core, this is just a simple way of saying, “Okay, Facebook. You’re allowed to follow me into these parts of the Internet to see what I’m doing.”

[Facebook Developers]

Into The Lab

facebook experiments

The MIT Technology Review states that the Facebook Data Team once decided to “experiment with the way Facebook works, tweaking the site – the way scientists might prod an ant’s nest – to see how users react.”

Below is a section from the article that explains the details of an experiment conducted by Eytan Bakshy, who collaborated with Marlow in an effort to learn more about Facebook’s users.

So he [Bakshy] messed with how Facebook operated for a quarter of a billion users. Over a seven-week period, the 76 million links that those users shared with each other were logged. Then, on 219 million randomly chosen occasions, Facebook prevented someone from seeing a link shared by a friend. Hiding links this way created a control group so that Bakshy could assess how often people end up promoting the same links because they have similar information sources and interests.

He found that our close friends strongly sway which information we share, but overall their impact is dwarfed by the collective influence of numerous more distant contacts—what sociologists call “weak ties.” It is our diverse collection of weak ties that most powerfully determines what information we’re exposed to.

As you can tell, the answer to whether Facebook is experimenting on its users or not is obvious. Granted, it didn’t really hurt anything, but one item to take into consideration is the knowledge of the experiment’s subjects. When you sign up for Facebook, you automatically agree to the terms and conditions. In this case, users were automatically inserted into the experiment theoretically unaware.

Throughout all of this, social engineering is the keyword that we need to focus on. In April of this year, (upon Zuckerburg’s girlfriend-turned-wife’s insistence and his own will-power) Facebook was used as a way to increase organ donor registrations. How? A little box appeared on the Timeline that allowed users to let their friends know that they were registered donors. Apparently, possibly through public notifications alone, enrollment increased in 23 out of 44 states. Similarly, this past American election allowed for users to let their friends know that they had voted.

Cameron Marlow told the Review that this type of technology could be used by others on Facebook. That said, one can infer that it could eventually be just another type of social advertising. Rather than utilizing testimonies from paid actors or random individuals, companies could simply use people that you already know. In simple terms, this is just an upgrade to old form demographic data.

[Technology Review]

Well, Is It Evil?

Facebook isn’t technically doing anything wrong. However, the site defines itself as a social network as opposed to an online research center. Is it right to experiment on users without letting them know in a more obvious manner?

For more articles on Internet privacy and security, check these out:

Hw do you feel about Facebook experimenting on you? Now that it’s out in the open, will this change your social media habits?

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  1. Aditya Nath Jha
    March 16, 2013 at 7:35 am

    All they want is data, it's too much. Why don't they do things the straight way!

  2. Judith
    February 26, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    I don't think you have to be a genius or member of mensa to figure this one out. Anyone who doesn't think they are doing this, probably should not be using a computer.
    Every company who designs and implements any program or app are using you as a guinea pig. Every keystroke you make while buzzing around those apps, programs, even the OS on your computer is being recorded and analyzed.
    There are very few companies that do not do that. They will say it is to make their product better......yeah....right.

  3. Elizabeth Sebastian
    January 13, 2013 at 5:35 am

    I just started a blog about a week ago. On all the websites about blogging -- Pro Blogger, Copy Blogger, Mashable, etc. -- it's said that FB is absolutely crucial if not mandatory to have an account with so that you can reach out to potential readers and promote your blog or website. Eventually I'll probably have to break down and do so. But my strategy is to have just a dummy personal profile that I'll keep mostly empty, and use just for admin access to a "professional" Fan Page. Since my blog is a "personal branded" blog in that it has my name in the domain, the Fan Page would have my name too, but would only be used as a billboard of sorts where I engage with other users on a slightly superficial level and don't let them OR Suck-a-Borg into my private life.

    If people read my blog (and since it's only an infant, eventually I hope they will), they'll get an insight into what kind of personality I have, how I write, what kind of music/TV/movies, etc., I like or don't. The blog itself deals with music, and I often mention acts popular in the 1980s or before. So even without Facebook, people could see that I like eighties music, John Hughes films and junk food. But so does Amanda Hocking, and probably thousands of other people, so no big reveal there.

    But what neither FB nor any of these other sites, nor even the readers, will learn, is my real date of birth (I turned 113 on January 1, lol, "born" 1/1/1900), who anyone is in my family, or anything else of that nature about "me," like where I went to school, where I grew up, or even what I look like (I don't use my picture but instead a music-related Gravatar). They can gather that I'm relatively young and obviously not a centenarian and then some. By doing this, I make sure to maintain at least some control over what that friendless blunder can see in his Lambda Mu panty raid and also what the numerous "unknowns" who I'm blogging for are privy to about my personal life. I make no apologies and am very clear that I don't like Zuckerberg, either, which might send FB's sensitivity filter a few flares.

    I also think it bears mentioning how ironic it is that Big Brother Failbook was born in the year 1984. No word on if that, like my status as a senior citizen, is a clever joke made with just a tweak of a profile form too. Maybe Trump can pull Z's birth certificate and donate $5B this time to make FB stop tracking your IP address and full-sequence DNA among everything else.

  4. Anonymous
    December 22, 2012 at 12:11 am

    All will the same, finally...

  5. Lisa Santika Onggrid
    December 19, 2012 at 6:17 am

    It has flaws, but sadly I think more people are going to ignore this anyway. Our society is moving this way. There's a visual novel about the world in 2027, where the concept of privacy has lost amongst the youngsters.Judging from how things go, I don't think its unlikely.
    Personally I don't use FB, but more services are doing more data mining, so we shouldn't be smug just because we don't have account in FB. When we consciously make the decision to step into the realm of internet, we've agreed to give up some of our personal data. I'm not saying I encourage this kind of practice, though.

  6. Timothy Liem
    December 19, 2012 at 3:02 am

    most people don't know this. even I myself. all i know is facebook tracking down what we're doing by using facebook connect. but for the experiment thing is a new thing for me. gotta be more aware for logging in to sites that require us to login using facebook. or leave facebook once and for all. thanks Josh.

  7. Kashif Maqsood
    December 18, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    One word....Scary!

  8. Rahul Yadav
    December 18, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    nice one.............

  9. Muo TechGuy
    December 18, 2012 at 9:52 am

    This is good scaremongering about a pretty common practice. Do you use a store credit card or loyalty card? Do you have an Amazon account? Experimenting, A/B testing, social engineering - call it what you like - is done by any company that has any data or influence over your habits. And with those results the world gets better, the interfaces get cleaner, and app experiences improve. There's no need to scare people though.

    • Joshua Lockhart
      December 18, 2012 at 10:49 am

      Heya James,

      Perhaps I could have added a bit more about the benefits.

      For instance, there's the whole organ donors bit. That's pretty cool. Furthermore, as you mentioned, interfaces do get cleaner and results can get a little more suited to one's taste.

  10. Joshua Lockhart
    December 18, 2012 at 9:26 am

    Do you know of any other examples? I'm genuinely curious.

    (I'll probably end up Googling for some later, though.)

    • Kiril Vasilev
      December 18, 2012 at 11:38 am

      There is no need of example. What happens on the web, nobody knows. And i'm sceptic.

  11. Raghav Gupta
    December 18, 2012 at 4:59 am

    Facebook has got boring these days I dont use it now so doesnt matter for me
    Just waiting for some new product hich will make Facebook a history as fb made orkut

    • Joshua Lockhart
      December 18, 2012 at 9:25 am

      That's how it seems to go. However, it seems like we've gotten rather familiar with Facebook.

      • Lisa Santika Onggrid
        December 19, 2012 at 6:18 am

        This problem is not tied to a service. Other social media (or even other web services) will catch on the trend. As we're growing towards 'social' everything (social games, social apps, etc, etc), this is not a problem you can evade just by moving to the others.

  12. Jonthue Michel
    December 18, 2012 at 2:12 am

    Wow that is serious. And this is only facebook imagine what Google is doing with their unive rsal account that is connected and accessible to almost every site. I should not be surprise or bother cause 1. I have nothing to hide 2. One way or another data on individuals is being retained in a way possible we never thought possible.

    • Joshua Lockhart
      December 18, 2012 at 9:27 am

      I guess so. I'm just wondering if I'm either apathetic or genuinely not afraid.