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About that Facebook test…

This week, tech news and social media were all up in arms about a test that Facebook had performed a few years back.

The test was very simple: for a small subset of users, Facebook tweaked the algorithm that decides what posts to show you. Group A got slightly more negative posts displayed in their feed, and group B got slightly more positive posts. The net effect is that people in group A went on to share slightly more negative posts themselves, whereas the folks in group B posted slightly more positive things.

Now, I’m not going get into the ethics of the test, or the tap dancing around Facebook’s terms of service that apparently occurred. This isn’t even about whether Facebook’s actions were good or evil, right or wrong or something else (though I will touch on one of the outcomes of the test and how it has direct relevance to something I’m doing.)

Nope. This is about a greater reality that I think you need to be aware of.

You’re being experimented on all the time.

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If this then that

The Facebook test boils down to a simple concept:

If <this> then <that>

The “<this>” was altered, and the resulting changes to “<that>” were observed.

Web sites, email marketers, newspapers, advertisers and the mass media do this all the time. In its simplest form it’s called “A/B testing”. Have two different “<this>’s” and see how each impacts the “<that>”.

A few examples:

  • Two different headlines for the same article: which one generates more readers?
  • Two different headlines for a social media post: which one generates the most clicks?1
  • Two different prices for the same product: which one garners more total revenue?
  • Two different ads: which one generates the most sales?2
  • Two different paragraphs of text: which one causes more people to take action?
  • Two different articles on the same topic: which one are more people clicking through to read?

It’s not that much of a stretch to say “Two different collections of posts, which one makes people happier?”

Of course, tests can be more complex than simple A/B testing.

PrivacyTracking need not be involved

One of the topics that’s a big source of concern is – of course – tracking. People are worried that they, personally, are being tracked.

Tracking need not be used at all to perform these tests. It’s purely a numbers game.

Let’s say I have a form that asks you to subscribe to a newsletter. I create two versions of this form – A and B.  I run each for a given amount of time 3, or I randomly show some people form A and some people form B. If 5% of the people that see form A sign up, and 10% of the people that see form B sign up, then my test tells me that form B is more effective. No individual information needed whatsoever – purely counting the number of times shown, and the number of signups that resulted from each.

Most testing is just this simple.

And it’s ubiquitous.

An ethical price test

One approach to testing the price that people are willing to pay for an item is to offer two different prices to people randomly.

What can make this ethical, in my opinion, is when the person who commits to purchasing at the higher price is then given the lower price anyway. The fact that he was willing to pay more (or not, as the case may be) simply influences future prices.

That ethical line

I’m not saying that testing is always that simple or anonymous. The Facebook test tracked the behaviour of a set of individual accounts, for example. And yeah, that’s where things get sticky.

A few years ago Amazon got into some hot water for showing different people different pricing for the same item. It’s difficult to know whether that’s testing, or a more dynamic pricing model where an item’s price can, quite literally, change over the course of a day in response to … well, one would expect supply and demand. But it’s likely that companies may very well consider many additional factors in determining and adjusting prices.

Is it ethical? I don’t know. I believe that most of the time the simple cases of A/B testing are, and honestly, they don’t concern me. Heck, I should be doing more of them myself. (Newsletter signups are, after all, the lifeblood of a site like Ask Leo!.)

But it’s also quite possible to construct tests that cross the ethical line for people. Perhaps Facebook’s was one of them.

What’s important to know, though, is that this kind of thing happens, and more often than you probably realize.

Using the data

I mentioned that one of the outcomes of Facebook’s test had direct relevance to something I’m doing.

That outcome was this: people post more positively when they see more positive posts. Part of me wants to yell out “Well, Duh! OF COURSE they do.” It seems obvious to me that things that even slightly elevate (or depress) our mood cause us to act in accordance with that now slightly-changed mood.

And ultimately this is exactly why I took on HeroicStories.

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Footnotes & references

1: I’m 100% convinced this is how we arrived at so-called “clickbait” headlines. You can guess whether “Soldier returns home, watch pet’s excited reaction” or “Soldier returns home; you won’t believe what happens next!” gets the most clicks.

2: I do this, by the way. You may see several variants of ads for my books on the site. Over time I weed out those that perform the worst, and try new variants.

3: Not technically A/B testing, which should happen simultaneously. I semi-facetiously refer to this as “A/A testing”.

10 comments on “About that Facebook test…”

  1. That heroic stories link goes to an index of a root folder containing just a cgi-bin folder whose access is forbidden.

  2. Regarding footnote number 1, I hate those “you won’t believe what happens next!” headlines and I normally will not click on them. It feels too much like I’m being manipulated.

  3. Interesting! . . . I already knew it, perhaps subconsciously. Already when I’ve sold something on Ebay I’ve automatically given a glowing positive ”feedback” as soon as the buyer pays. Well, hey, he paid!! That’s 100% all I can expect. But could it be that this influences the buyer (if he even notices!) into giving me at least a reasonable feedback? And if so, well what is wrong with that? Surely nothing whatsoever! It’s just the ordinary friendly interaction that Ebay want between all their sellers and buyers. Surely it’s nothing more complex (or sinister) than that! Well that’s my story and I’ll stick to that, he he. – (Keep up the good work Leo! :-)

  4. At first glance, your ethical price test seems valid. Upon reflection, however, it means Mr. Rich, who was willing (and presumably able) to pay the higher price, gets the product at the lower price. Meanwhile, Mr. Poor, who might have been able (and perhaps willing) to pay the lower price, is defrauded of that possibility because the offer he sees is untruthfully elevated above the real price he would have been asked to pay, to a level he believes he cannot afford. Ethical? I can’t judge. Immoral? maybe. A crappy way to treat potential customers struggling to make their way in today’s economy? I think so. There are surely better ways to determine the “correct” price for a product.
    The encouraging thing is that, since it is possible to offer the product at a lower price, the free market will insure that someone will do so, and Mr. poor can buy it. The concept of setting a price at “what the market will bear” is normally trumped by free market competition, and that’s always in the consumer’s favor

  5. Price is relative, If you buy a can of beans at walmart or if you buy one at a boutique on rodeo drive i guess the price may change though the contents of the can probably won’t. People will pay more, expect to & be happy to as they will have the belief that the rodeo drive beans taste better. ( aplogies if i get the rodeo drive bit wrong I’m a Brit & was last in LA in the 1980’s so there may not be food shops on Rodeo drive but i hope you get the point). Its exactly the same as walking down the Mall & seeing shops with big signs saying “SALE 50% off”, 50% off what? the price they put stuff out at for a while so they can then “cut” it while its still well above their cost point. Sales & marketing is the same whether on the high street or the net. If the price is good for you then fine If the price is to good to be true then its probably a scam.

  6. Good article about testing, Leo. With the exception of the different prices example, I would wish more online retailers do the simple A/B testing. Why? So I don’t have to fill out all those $%$$%!! surveys!

  7. In the beginning, Facebook may have been about connecting with friends, etc., but has evolved into nothing more than a complex means to make money. So the fact that its users are being manipulated in any way in an effort to get them to click here or there (racking up advertising income) should not come as a surprise to anyone, nor should it shock people to learn that sites like Facebook (social media) are not really interested in you as a person aside from the tidbits you provide about yourself which they can use to focus advertising which will hopefully initiate a response from you resulting in revenue for them (and the advertiser).

    Just look at how prevalent advertising has become. It’s everywhere you look in books, magazines, movie theaters (and movies), television, radio, news web sites, newspapers, buses, trains, on the sides of buildings, billboards and trailing behind planes in the sky.

    So the whole issue is about people being offended or outraged that Facebook would (GASP!) manipulate what they see on their Facebook page is laughable…it’s been happening for years pretty much everywhere you go either in the real world or in cyberspace.

    Money *is* the new god and pretty much everyone serves it.

  8. 1st I’d like to thank you for all your articles. Some helpful, some not, but all interresting to read.

    I think I may be a target for some of Amazon’s special buys. They use what I buy and what I look at to send special prices. I’m not complaining. In fact it’s kinda cute. I’ve been buying from Amazon for quite a few years now and I only buy what I want. Before I buy anything I shop around.

    Best-Buy is great for product information and sometimes they have the lowest price as well. Their specials of the day can really be special.
    Amazon has great everyday pricing but sometimes the info is lacking. Usually their specials of the day are great prices but only on things that aren’t selling well or nobody wants. Like a childs potty chair that holds an i-pad. Showed that to my wife and we both laughed.

    Other places I frequent are Tiger Direct, New Egg, Walmart (great prices but little if any info), Home Depot, Target, K-Mart, Sears, and the list goes on and on. I had bought a lot of things from eBay some of which I realy got burned with so no more eBay.


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