How Facebook Programmed Our Relatives

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
June 21, 2018

Cross-posted from Scientific American

Three years ago, on his birthday, a law professor watched his e-mail inbox fill with Facebook notifications indicating that friends had posted messages on his wall. The messages made him sad. The clogged inbox was annoying, but what really upset him was having disclosed his birth date to Facebook in the first place. It’s not necessary for social networking or to comply with privacy laws, as some people mistakenly believe. He hadn't paid much attention when he signed up—as with most electronic contracts, there was no room for negotiation or deliberation about terms. He complied with Facebook’s instructions, entered the data and clicked a button.

A few days later, the law professor decided to change the birth date on his Facebook profile to avoid the same situation next year. But when the fake date rolled around, his inbox again flooded with Facebook notifications. Two of the messages were from close relatives, one of whom he had spoken with on the phone on his actual birthday!

How could she not realize that the date was fake?

Our hypothesis: she'd been programmed!

That law professor was one of us (Brett Frischmann), and it confirmed his suspicions that most people respond automatically to Facebook’s prompts to provide information or contact a friend without really thinking much about it. That's because digital networked technologies are engineering humans to behave like simple stimulus-response machines. This is one of the core arguments Frischmann explores with Evan Selinger in Re-Engineering Humanity, a new book that examines a wide range of different human-computer interfaces, including social media.

Social media plays a tremendous role in modern life. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have become the primary ways of keeping in touch with friends, family, classmates and colleagues. To date, however, researchers have not fully explored the degree to which these platforms are literally programming human responses. Social media platforms encode a range of social behaviors: Facebook notifies us when it is time to wish our friends a happy birthday; LinkedIn prompts us to congratulate contacts on their work anniversaries; Twitter breaks its own chronology to show us tweets that many of our friends have liked. As a result, social interactions are often reduced to the click of a button.

So we decided to test it. In the summer of 2017, after obtaining institutional review board approval, we conducted a field experiment to demonstrate the way in which Facebook has re-engineered the practice of wishing people a “Happy Birthday.” We recruited 11 people to change their birth dates on Facebook to a randomly assigned day, and then waited to see if people caught on. Overall, 10.7 percent of their combined 10,042 friends wished them a happy birthday on their fake date.

Another group of people sent texts and direct messages or made phone calls to wish them well. A vanishingly small number of people realized the birth dates were fake. When we compared the rate of fake birthday wishes to those received in 2016 and 2015, the results were statistically indistinguishable. Basically, people get the same number of well-wishes on their real birthdays as the fake ones we assigned. These preliminary results suggest that Facebook has programmed humans to automatically wish their contacts well regardless of the veracity of the date.

Beyond the initial decision to respond to the notification stimulus, people might stop and think about what to say as they compose a message. Yet even here, it seems Facebook may engineer habitual responses. We observed a remarkable consistency in semantic content, as if people followed standardized scripts. Surprisingly, 27 percent of the messages were nothing more than “HBD” or “Happy Birthday” and didn't even mention the person's name!

Facebook may increase the number of people to whom we wish a happy birthday with a few clicks of a button; it's not as if we remember the birth dates of that high school classmate or distant cousin. But if it becomes programmed behavior, is it even meaningful? As for people who aren't on Facebook or don't post their birth dates publicly, the control they exact over their data comes at a cost: they don't receive scores of well-wishes from far-flung contacts. After all, it's still nice to be thought of, even if just once a year.

Our story ends with a sad coda: we submitted a grant application to support future studies, but after a preliminary approval we were told that the funder decided to back out. An official explained that funding social media experiments was too risky in the wake of the recent Cambridge Analytica debacle. Even though we reminded him that we conducted research approved by a university institutional review board, it was to no avail. This is worrisome for reasons that go well beyond our own research.

Now more than ever, society needs ethical social science at the intersection of technology and humanity. Digital platforms are shaping what it means to be human, and we can't rely on the platforms to police or research themselves. In the meantime, when your birthday rolls around, enjoy the warm feelings from friends sending their regards— but remember that they don't know when your birthday really is any more than you do theirs.