Emotions are as viral as a dog wearing a hat or an opossum riding a skateboard, was the determination a Facebook study reached after manipulating the emotional states of its users for seven days in January 2012.
The not-so-lighthearted Facebook study, entitled "Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks," was published on June 14 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) and has given social network users yet another reason to spend less time sharing online.
Close to 700,000 Facebook users unknowingly took part in the study, in which researchers analyzed more than 3 million posts, containing over 122 million words. Researchers isolated 4 million positive and 1.8 million negative words from the scrutinized posts and then manipulated user NewsFeeds to mood one or the other, either a river of positive posts or a flood of negative content.
By showing the unwitting control group only positive or negative posts, researchers wanted to determine whether or not user moods were contagious -- if an individual was only exposed to pessimistic content, would that user submit negative content as well?
The study concluded negative words increased in direct correlation to the appearance of pessimistic posts and that the converse was true of reactions to positive content.
"This is not a simple case of mimicry, either; the cross-emotional encouragement effect (e.g., reducing negative posts led to an increase in positive posts) cannot be explained by mimicry alone, although mimicry may well have been part of the emotion-consistent effect," the study stated.
The study accounted for users' reaction to their friends' moods, rather than focusing on an individual's reaction to good or bad news in itself. Researchers also determined that pure expression, good or bad, was impacted to the absence of prevalence of content from friends.
"We also observed a withdrawal effect: People who were exposed to fewer emotional posts, of either valence, in their NewsFeed were less expressive overall on the following days, addressing the question about how emotional expression affects social engagement online," the study stated.
Researchers claimed to have used the Hadoop Map/Reduce system, an analytics framework, so that researchers wouldn't have to view the content of the filtered or feed posts. The use of the analytics system was said to have enabled the study to comply with Facebook's policies on data usage.
Facebook's data usage protocols authorize the social networking site to collect user data and use it for "internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement."