Keepin’ It Topical: The Big Facebook Study

I happen to have an iPhone because, as many of you know, I think differently (not to be confused with the oddly-phrased “Think Different”® slogan of the parent company, Apple), and nothing expresses those characteristics of intelligence and individuality about me better than my ownership of one of the most popular phones on the market. While the iPhone itself is a rather functional piece of technology, there is something about it (OK; related to it) that has consistently bothered me: the Facebook app I can download for it. The reason this app has been bugging me is that, at least as far as my recent memory allows, the app seems to have an unhealthy obsession with showing me the always-useless “top stories” news feed as my default, rather than the “most recent” feed I actually want to see. In fact, I recall that the last update to the app actually made it more of a hassle to get to the most recent feed, rather than make it easily accessible. I had always wondered why there didn’t seem to be a simple way to change my default, as this seems like a fairly basic design fix. Not to get too conspiratorial about the whole thing, but this past week, I think I might have found part of the answer.

Which brings us to the matter of the Illuminati…

It’s my suspicion that the “top stories” feed has uses beyond simply trying to figure out which content I might want to see; this would be a good thing, because if the function were to figure out what I want to see, it’s pretty bad at that task. The “top stories” feed might also be used for the sinister purposes of conducting research (then again, the “most recent” feed can probably do that as well; I just really enjoy complaining about the “top stories” one). Since this new story (or is it a “top story”?) about Facebook conducting research with its users has been making the rounds in the media lately, I figured I would add my two cents to the incredibly tall stack of pennies the internet has collectively made in honor of the matter. Don’t get it twisted, though: I’m certainly not doing this in the interest of click-bait to capitalize on a flavor-of-the-week topic. If I were, I would have titled this post “These three things about the Facebook study will blow your mind; the fourth will make you cry” and put it up on Buzzfeed. Such behavior is beneath me because, as I said initially, I think different(ly)…

Anyway, onto the paper itself. Kramer et al (2014) set out to study whether manipulating what kind of emotional content people are exposed to in  other’s Facebook status updates had an effect on that person’s later emotional content in their own status updates. The authors believe such an effect would obtain owing to “emotional contagion”, which is the idea that people can “…transfer positive and negative moods and emotions to others”. As an initial semantic note, I think that such phrasing – the use of contagion as a metaphor – only serves to lead one to think incorrectly about what’s going on here. Emotions and moods are not the kind of things that can be contagious the way pathogens are: pathogens can be physically transferred from one host to another, while moods and emotions cannot. Instead, moods and emotions are things generated by our minds from particular sets of inputs.

To understand that distinction quickly, consider two examples: in the first case, you and I are friends. You are sad and I see you being sad. This, in turn, makes me feel sad. Have your emotions “infected” me? Probably not; consider what would happen if you and I were enemies instead: since I’m a bastard and I like to see people I don’t like fail, your sadness might make me feel happy instead. So it doesn’t seem to be your emotion per se that’s contagious; it might just be the case that I happen to generate similar emotions under certain circumstances. While this might seem to be a relatively minor issue, similar types of thinking about the topic of ideas – specifically, that ideas themselves can be contagious – has led to a lot of rather unproductive thinking and discussions about “memes”. By talking about ideas or moods independently of the minds that create them, we end up with a rather dim view of how our psychology works, I feel.

Which is just what the Illuminati want…

Moving past that issue, however, the study itself is rather simple: for a week in 2012, approximately 700,000 Facebook users had some of their news feed content hidden from them some of the time. Each time one of the subjects viewed their feed, depending on what condition they were in, each post containing certain negative or positive words had a certain probability (between 10-90% chance) of being omitted. Unfortunately, the way the paper is written, it’s a bit difficult to get a sense as to precisely how much content was, on average, omitted. However, as the authors note, this was done a per-viewing basis, so content that was hidden during one viewing might well have showed up were the page to be refreshed (and sitting there refreshing Facebook minute after minute is something many people might actually do). The content was also only hidden on the news feed: if the subject visited a friend’s page directly or sent or received any messages, all the content was available. So, for a week, some of the time, some of the content was omitted, but only on a per-view basis, and only in one particular form (the news feed); not exactly the strongest manipulation I could think of.

The effect of that manipulation was seen when examining what percentage of positive or negative words the subjects themselves used when posting their status updates during the experimental period. Those subjects who saw more positive words in their feed tended to post more positive words themselves, and vice versa for negative words. Sort of, anyway. OK; just barely. In the condition where subjects had access to fewer negative words, the average subject’s status was made up of about 5.3% positive words and 1.7% negative words; when the subjects had access to fewer positive words, these percentages plummeted/jumped to…5.15% and 1.75%, respectively. Compared to the control groups, then, these changes amount to increases or decreases of in between 0.02 and 0.0001 standard deviations of emotional word usage or, as we might say in precise statistical terms, effects so astonishingly small they might as well not be said to exist.

“Can’t you see it? The effect is right there; plain as day!”

What we have here, in sum, then, is an exceedingly weak and probabilistic manipulation that had about as close to no net effect as one could reasonably get, based on an at-least-partially (if only metaphorically) deficient view of how the mind works. The discussion about the ethical issues people perceived with the research appears to have vastly overshadowed the fact that research itself wasn’t really very strong or interesting. So for all of you people outraged over this study for fear that people were harmed: don’t worry. I would say the evidence is good that no appreciable harm came of it.

I would also say that other ethical criticisms of the study are a bit lacking. I’ve seen people raise concerns that Facebook had no business seeing if bad moods would be induced by showing people a disproportionate number of negative status updates; I’ve also seen concerns that the people posting these negative updates might not have received the support they needed if other people were blocked from seeing them. The first thing to note is that Facebook did not increase the absolute number of positive or negative posts; only (kind of) hid some of them from appearing (some of the time, to some people, in one particular forum); the second is that, given those two criticisms, it would seem that Facebook is in a no-win situation: reducing or failing to reduce the number of negative stories leads to them being criticized. Facebook is either failing to get people the help they need or bumming us out by disproportionately exposing us to people who need help. Finally, I would add that if anyone did miss a major life event of a friend – positive or negative – because Facebook might have probabilistically omitted a status update on a given visit, then you’re likely not very good friends with that person anyway, and probably don’t have a close enough relationship with them that would allow you to realistically lend help or take much pleasure from the incident.

References: Kramer, A., Guillory, J., & Hancock, J. (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1320040111

More About Memes

Sometime ago, I briefly touched on the why I felt the concept of a meme didn’t help us understand some apparent human (and nonhuman) predispositions for violence. I don’t think my concerns about the idea that memes are analogs to genes – both being replicators that undergo a selective process, resulting in what one might call evolution by natural selection – were done full justice there. Specifically, I only scratched the surface of one issue, without explicitly getting down to the deeper, theoretical concerns with the ‘memes-as-replicators’ idea. As far I can see at the moment, memetics proves to be too underspecified in many key regards to profitably help us understand human cognition and behavior. By extension, the concept of cultural group selection faces many of the same challenges. None of what I’m about to say discredits the notion that people can often end up with similar ideas in their heads: I didn’t think up the concepts of evolution by natural selection, genes, or memes, yet here I am discussing them (with people who will presumably understand them to some degree as well). The point is that those ideas probably didn’t end up in our heads because the ideas themselves were good replicators.

Good luck drawing the meme version of the tree of life.

The first of these conceptual issues concerns the problem of discreteness. This is the basic question of what are the particulate units of inheritance that are being replicated? Let’s use the example provided by Wikipedia:

A meme has no given size. Susan Blackmore writes that melodies from Beethoven’s symphonies are commonly used to illustrate the difficulty involved in delimiting memes as discrete units. She notes that while the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony form a meme widely replicated as an independent unit, one can regard the entire symphony as a single meme as well.

So, are those first four notes to be regarded an independent meme or part of a larger meme? The answer, unhelpfully, seems to be, “yes”. To see why this answer is unhelpful, consider a biological context:organisms are collections of traits, traits are collections of proteins, proteins are coded for by genes, and genes are made up of alleles. By contrast, this post (a meme) is made up of paragraphs (memes), which are made up of sentences (memes), which are made up of words (memes), which are made up of letters (memes), all of which are intended to express abstract ideas (also memes). In the biological sense, then, the units of heredity (alleles/genes) can be conceived of and spoken about in a distinct manner from their products (proteins, traits, and organisms). The memetics sense, blurs this distinction; the hypothetical units of heredity (memes) are the same as their products (memes), and can broken down into effectively-limitless combinations (words, letters, notes, songs, speeches, cultures, etc). If the definition of a meme can be applied to accommodate almost anything, it adds nothing to our understanding of ideas.

This definitional obscurity has other conceptual downsides as well that begin to tip the idea that ‘memes replicate‘ into the realm of unfalsifiability. Let’s return to the biological domain: here, two organisms can have identical sets of genes, yet display different phenotypes, as their genetic relatedness is a separate concept from their phenotypic relatedness. The reverse can also hold: two organisms can have phenotypically similar traits – like wings – despite not inheriting that trait from a genetic common ancestor (think bats and pigeons). What these examples tell us is that phenotypic resemblance – or lack thereof – is not necessarily a good cue for determining biological relatedness. In the case of memes, there is no such conceptual dividing line using parallel concepts: the phenotype of a meme is its genotype. This makes it very difficult to do things like measure relatedness between memes or determine if they have a common ancestor. To make this example more concrete, imagine you have come up with a great idea (or a truly terrible one; the example works regardless of quality). When you share this idea with your friend, your friend appears stunned, for just the other day they had precisely the same idea.

Assuming both of you have identical copies of this idea in your respective heads, does it make sense to call one idea a replication of the other? It would seem not. Though they might resemble one another in every regard, one is not the offspring of another. To shift the example back to biology, were a scientist to create a perfect clone of you, that clone would not be a copy of you by descent; you would not share any common ancestors, despite your similarities. The conceptualization of memes appears to blur this distinction, as there is currently no way of separating out descent from a common ancestor from separate creation events in regards to ideas. Without this distinction, the potential application of natural selection to memes is weakened substantially. One could make the argument that memes, like adaptations, are too improbably organized to arise spontaneously, which would imply they represent replications with mutations/modifications, rather than independent creation events. That argument would be deficient on at least two counts.

One case in which there is a real controversy.

The first problem with that potential counterargument is that there are two competing accounts for special design: evolution and creationism. In the case of biology, that debate is (or at least ought to be) largely over. In the case of memes, however, the creationism side has a lot going for it; not in the supernatural-sense, mind you, but rather in the information-processing sense. Our minds are not passive receptors for sensory information, attempting to bring perceptions from ‘out there’ inside; they actively process incoming information, structuring it in predictable ways to create our subjective experience of the world (Michael Mills has an excellent post on that point). Brains are designed to organize and represent incoming information in particular ways and, importantly, this organization is often not recoverable from the information itself. There is nothing about certain wavelengths of light that would lead to their automatic perception as “green” or “red”, and nothing intrinsic about speech that makes it grammatical. This would imply that at least some memes (like grammatical rules) need to be created in a more or less de novo fashion; others need to be given meaning not found in the information itself: while a parrot can be taught to repeat certain phrases, it is unlikely that the phrases trigger the same set of representations inside the parrot’s head as they do in ours.

The second response to the potential rebuttal concerns the design features of memes more generally, and again returns us to their definitional obscurity. Biological replicators which create more copies of themselves become more numerous, relative to replicators that do a worse job; that much is a tautology. The question of interest is how they manage to do so. There are scores of adaptive problems that need to be successfully solved for biological organisms to reproduce. When we look for evidence of special design, we are looking for evidence of adaptations designed to solve those kinds of problems. To do so requires (a) the identification of an adaptive problem, (b) a trait that solves the problem, and (c) an account of how it does does so.  As the basic structure of memes has not been formally laid out, it becomes impossible to pick out evidence of memetic design features that came to be because they solved particular adaptive problems. I’m not even sure whether proper adaptive problems faced by memes specifically, and not adaptive problems faced by their host organism, have even been articulated.

One final fanciful example that highlights both these points is the human ability to (occasionally) comprehend scrambled words with ease:

I cdn’uolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg: the phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rseearch taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae.

In the above passage, what is causing some particular meme (the word ‘taht’) to be transformed into a different meme (the word ‘that’)? Is there some design feature of the word “that” which is particularly good at modifying other memes to make copies of itself? Probably not, since no one read “cluod” in the above passage as “that”. Perhaps the meme ‘taht’ is actually composed of 4 different memes, ‘t’, ‘a’, ‘h’, and ‘t’, which have some affinity for each other. Then again, probably not, since I doubt non-English speakers would spontaneously turn the four into the word ‘that’. The larger points here are that (a) our minds are not passive recipients of information, but rather activity represent and create it, and (b) if one cannot speak meaningfully about different features of memes (like design features, or heritable units) beyond, “I know it when I see it”, the enterprise of discussing memes seems to more closely resemble a post hoc fitting of any observed set of data to the theory, rather than the theory driving predictions about unknown data. 

“Oh, it’ll fit alright…”

All of this isn’t to say that memetics will forever be useless in furthering our understanding of how ideas are shaped and spread but, in order to be useful, a number of key concepts would need to be deeply clarified at a minimum. A similar analysis applies to other similar types of explanations, such as cultural ones: it’s beyond doubt that local conditions – like cultures and ideas – can shape behavior. The key issue, however, is not noting that these things can have effects, but rather developing theories that deliver testable predictions about the ways in which those effects are realized. Adaptationism and evolution by natural selection fit the bill well, and in that respect I would praise memetics: it recognizes the potential power of such an approach. The problem, however, lies in the execution. If these biological theories are used loosely to the point of metaphor, their conceptual power to guide research wanes substantially.

I Meme You No Harm

...[T]he evidence strongly suggests that war is not a primordial instinct that we share with chimpanzees but a cultural innovation, a virulent meme that began spreading around the world about 10,000 years ago and still infects us. – John Horgan

What a hopeful thought: humans have no innate predisposition for coalitional violence – the large scale version of which we would call war. No. Violence, you see, is a meme; it’s an infection; part of this mysterious “culture” thing, which is not to be conflated in any way with biology. Apparently, it’s also a meme that humans were capable of spreading to chimps, via the introduction of bananas to make naturalistic observations easier. Who knew that fruit came with, basically, a meme of the plot to 28 Days Later?

Bananas: the ultimate catalyst of war?

While this notion of “violence as a meme/infection, not anything innate” may sound hopeful to those who wish to see an end to violence, the babies that they are, it’s also an incredibly dim view. For starters, you know those big canine teeth chimps have? They don’t have them for eating. Rather than being utensils, they’re the biological equivalent of having four mouth-daggers, used mainly to, you guessed it, seriously injure or kill other conspecifics (Alba et al., 2001). Given that for the vast majority of chimpanzee evolution there haven’t been humans consistently handing out bananas – in turn prompting memes for fighting that lead to the evolution of large canine teeth – we can rightly conclude that the origins of coalitional violence go back a bit further than Horgan’s hypothesis would predict.

However, perhaps handing out concentrated resources, in form of bananas, did actually increase violence in some chimp groups (as opposed to allowing researchers to simply observe more of it). This brings us to a question that gets at part of the reason memetics runs into serious problems explaining anything, and why Horgan’s view of innateness seems lacking: why would handing out food increase violence in chimps over any other behavior, such as cooperation or masturbation? Once researchers provided additional food, that meant there were more resources available to be shared, or additional leisure time available, leading idle hands to drift to the genitals. So to rephrase the question in terms of memes: why would we expect additional resources to successfully further the reproduction of (or even create) memes for violence specifically, when they could have had any number of other effects?

Bananas, free time, genitals; do you see the picture I’m painting here?

Before going any further, it would be helpful to clarify what is meant by the term “meme”. I’ll defer to Atran’s (2002) use of the term: “Memes are hypothetical cultural units, an idea or practice, passed on by imiation. Although nonbiological, they undergo Darwinian selection, like genes. Cultures and religions are supposedly coalitions of memes seeking to maximize their own fitness, regardless of the fitness costs for their human hosts”. As a thought experiment for understanding how evolution could work in a non-biological setting, the term works alright; when the idea runs up against reality, there are a lot of issues. I’d like to focus on what I feel is one of the biggest issues: the inability of meme theory to differentiate between the structure of the mind and the structure of the meme.

Memes aren’t supposed to reproduce and spread randomly. For starters, they’re generally species-specific: if you put a songbird in the same room as cat, provided the bird doesn’t end up dead, the “meme” of birdsong will never transfer to the cat no matter how much singing the bird does. You can show chimpanzees pictures of LOLcats their entire life, and I don’t think you’ll ever get so much as a chuckle from the apes, much less any imitation. Even within species, the spread of memes is not random. Let’s say I read something profoundly stupid about evolutionary psychology and, out of frustration, slam my head onto the keyboard to momentarily distract myself from the pain. The head-slam will generate a string of text, but that text won’t inspire people to replicate it and pass it along. What makes that bit of text less likely to be passed around then a phrase like, “Tonight. You”?

Sometimes, bananas get tired of waiting for idle hands.

An obvious candidate answer would be that one phrase appeals to our particular psychology in some way, whereas the other doesn’t. This tells us that both within- and between-species, what information gets passed on is going to be highly dependent on the existing structure of the mind; specifically, what kind of information the existing modules are already sensitive towards. To explain why a meme for violence – specifically violence – spreads throughout a population, you’d need to reference an organism already prepared for violence. Memes don’t create violence in a mind not already prepared for violence in certain situations; some degree of violence would need to be innate. Similarly, viruses don’t create the ability of host cells to reproduce them; they use the preexisting machinery for that job. In the same fashion, you’d need to reference an organism already prepared for birdsong to explain why such a meme would catch on in birds, but not cats or chimps.

I’m reminded of a story that’s generally used to argue against the notion of the universe, or our planet, being “fine-tuned” for life, but I think it works well to torpedo Horgan’s suggestion further. It goes something like this:

One day, a puddle awoke after a rainstorm. The puddle thought to itself, “Well, isn’t this interesting? The hole I find myself laying in seems remarkably well-suited to me; in fact, the hole seems to fit my shape rather perfectly. It seems incredibly improbable that I would end up in a hole that just happens to fit me, of all the possible places I could have ended up. Therefore, I can only conclude the hole was designed to have me in it”.

The shape of the water, obviously, is determined by the shape of its container – the hole. Likewise, the shape that information takes in a mind is determined by the shape of that mind – its modules, that all perceive, process, manipulate, and create information in their own fashion, rather than simply reproduce a high-fidelity copy (Atran, 2002). If you take away the container (the mind) you’ll quickly discover that the water (memes) have no shape of their own, and that a random string of words is as good of a meme as any.

A good example of both a meme, and the depth of thought displayed by puddles.

Further, I don’t see the concept of a meme adding anything above and beyond what predictions can already be drawn from the concept of a modular mind, nor do I think you can derive already existing states of affairs from meme theory. If the human mind has evolved to respond violently towards certain situations, contingent on context, we’re in a stronger position to predict when and why violence will occur than if we just say, “there’s a meme for violence”. As far as I can tell, the latter proposition makes few to no specific predictions, harking back to the illusion of explanatory depth. (“Norms, I’d like you to meet Memes. No one can seem to figure out much about either of you, so I’m sure you two can bond over that.”)

Though I have yet to hear any novel or useful predictions drawn from meme theory, I have heard plenty of smug comments along the lines of, “religion is just harmful meme, parasitizing your weak mind (and mine is strong enough to resist)”, or the initial quote. Until I hear something useful coming from the field of memetics, it’s probably best to pull back on the non-explanations passed off as worthwhile ones.

References: Alba, D.M., Moya-Sola, S., & Kohler, M. (2001). Canine reduction in Miocene hominid Oreopithecus bambolii. behavioral and evolutionary implications. Journal of Human Evolution, 40, 1-16  

Atran, S. (2002). In gods we trust: The evolutionary landscape of religion. New York: Oxford University Press.