This is crossposted from Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.
Back in 2020, leading academics and researchers at the company now known as Meta put together a large project to study social media and the 2020 US elections — particularly the roles of Instagram and Facebook. As Sinan Aral and I had written about how many paths for understanding effects of social media in elections could require new interventions and/or platform cooperation, this seemed like an important development. Originally the idea was for this work to be published in 2021, but there have been some delays, including simply because some of the data collection was extended as what one might call “election-related events” continued beyond November and into 2021. As of 2pm Eastern today, the news embargo for this work has been lifted on the first group of research papers.
I had heard about this project back a long time ago and, frankly, had largely forgotten about it. But this past Saturday, I was participating in the SSRC Workshop on the Economics of Social Media and one session was dedicated to results-free presentations about this project, including the setup of the institutions involved and the design of the research. The organizers informally polled us with qualitative questions about some of the results. This intrigued me. I had recently reviewed an unrelated paper that included survey data from experts and laypeople about their expectations about the effects estimated in a field experiment, and I thought this data was helpful for contextualizing what “we” learned from that study.
So I thought it might be useful, at least for myself, to spend some time eliciting my own expectations about the quantities I understood would be reported in these papers. I’ve mainly kept up with the academic and grey literature, I’d previously worked in the industry, and I’d reviewed some of this for my Senate testimony back in 2021. Along the way, I tried to articulate where my expectations and remaining uncertainty were coming from. I composed many of my thoughts on my phone Monday while taking the subway to and from the storage unit I was revisiting and then emptying in Brooklyn. I got a few comments from Solomon Messing and Tom Cunningham, and then uploaded my notes to OSF and posted a cheeky tweet.
Since then, starting yesterday, I’ve spoken with journalists and gotten to view the main text of papers for two of the randomized interventions for which I made predictions. These evaluated effects of (a) switching Facebook and Instagram users to a (reverse) chronological feed, (b) removing “reshares” from Facebook users’ feeds, and (c) downranking content by “like-minded” users, Pages, and Groups.
My main expectations for those three interventions could be summed up as follows. These interventions, especially chronological ranking, would each reduce engagement with Facebook or Instagram. This makes sense if you think the status quo is somewhat-well optimized for showing engaging and relevant content. So some of the rest of the effects — on, e.g., polarization, news knowledge, and voter turnout — could be partially inferred from that decrease in use. This would point to reductions in news knowledge, issue polarization (or coherence/consistency), and small decreases in turnout, especially for chronological ranking. This is because people get some hard news and political commentary they wouldn’t have otherwise from social media. These reduced-engagement-driven effects should be weakest for the “soft” intervention of downranking some sources, since content predicted to be particularly relevant will still make it into users’ feeds.
Besides just reducing Facebook use (and everything that goes with that), I also expected swapping out feed ranking for reverse chron would expose users to more content from non-friends via, e.g., Groups, including large increases in untrustworthy content that would normally rank poorly. I expected some of the same would happen from removing reshares, which I expected would make up over 20% of views under the status quo, and so would be filled in by more Groups content. For downranking sources with the same estimated ideology, I expected this would reduce exposure to political content, as much of the non-same-ideology posts will be by sources with estimated ideology in the middle of the range, i.e. [0.4, 0.6], which are less likely to be posting politics and hard news. I’ll also note that much of my uncertainty about how chronological ranking would perform was because there were a lot of unknown but important “details” about implementation, such as exactly how much of the ranking system really gets turned off (e.g., how much likely spam/scam content still gets filtered out in an early stage?).
How’d I do?
Here’s a quick summary of my guesses and the results in these three papers:
It looks like I was wrong in that the reductions in engagement were larger than I predicted: e.g., chronological ranking reduced time spent on Facebook by 21%, rather than the 8% I guessed, which was based on my background knowledge, a leaked report on a Facebook experiment, and this published experiment from Twitter.
Ex post I hypothesize that this is because of the duration of these experiments allowed for continual declines in use over months, with various feedback loops (e.g., users with chronological feed log in less, so they post less, so they get fewer likes and comments, so they log in even less and post even less). As I dig into the 100s of pages of supplementary materials, I’ll be looking to understand what these declines looked like at earlier points in the experiment, such as by election day.
My estimates for the survey-based outcomes of primary interest, such as polarization, were mainly covered by the 95% confidence intervals, with the exception of two outcomes from the “no reshares” intervention.
One thing is that all these papers report weighted estimates for a broader population of US users (population average treatment effects, PATEs), which are less precise than the unweighted (sample average treatment effect, SATE) results. Here I focus mainly on the unweighted results, as I did not know there was going to be any weighting and these are also the more narrow, and thus riskier, CIs for me. (There seems to have been some mismatch between the outcomes listed in the talk I saw and what’s in the papers, so I didn’t make predictions for some reported primary outcomes and some outcomes I made predictions for don’t seem to be reported, or I haven’t found them in the supplements yet.)
Now is a good time to note that I basically predicted what psychologists armed with Jacob Cohen’s rules of thumb might call extrapolate to “minuscule” effect sizes. All my predictions for survey-based outcomes were 0.02 standard deviations or smaller. (Recall Cohen’s rules of thumb say 0.1 is small, 0.5 medium, and 0.8 large.)
Nearly all the results for these outcomes in these two papers were indistinguishable from the null (p > 0.05), with standard errors for survey outcomes at 0.01 SDs or more. This is consistent with my ex ante expectations that the experiments would face severe power problems, at least for the kind of effects I would expect. Perhaps by revealed preference, a number of other experts had different priors.
A rare p < 0.05 result is that that chronological ranking reduced news knowledge by 0.035 SDs with 95% CI [-0.061, -0.008], which includes my guess of -0.02 SDs. Removing reshares may have reduced news knowledge even more than chronological ranking — and by more than I guessed.
Even with so many null results I was still sticking my neck out a bit compared with just guessing zero everywhere, since in some cases if I had put the opposite sign my estimate wouldn’t have been in the 95% CI. For example, downranking “like-minded” sources produced a CI of [-0.031, 0.013] SDs, which includes my guess of -0.02, but not its negation. On the other hand, I got some of these wrong, where I guessed removing reshares would reduce affective polarization, but a 0.02 SD effect is outside the resulting [-0.005, +0.030] interval.
It was actually quite a bit of work to compare my predictions to the results because I didn’t really know a lot of key details about exact analyses and reporting choices, which strikingly even differ a bit across these three papers. So I might yet find more places where I can, with a lot of reading and a bit of arithmetic, figure out where else I may have been wrong. (Feel free to point these out.)
I hope that this helps to contextualize the present results with expert consensus — or at least my idiosyncratic expectations. I’ll likely write a bit more about these new papers and further work released as part of this project.
It was probably an oversight for me not to make any predictions about the observational paper looking at polarization in exposure and consumption of news media. I felt like I had a better handle on thinking about simple treatment effects than these measures, but perhaps that was all the more reason to make predictions. Furthermore, given the limited precision of the experiments’ estimates, perhaps it would have been more informative (and riskier) to make point predictions about these precisely estimated observational quantities.
[I want to note that I was an employee or contractor of Facebook (now Meta) from 2010 through 2017. I have received funding for other research from Meta, Meta has sponsored a conference I organize, and I have coauthored with Meta employees as recently as earlier this month. I was also recently a consultant to Twitter, ending shortly after the Musk acquisition. You can find all my disclosures here.]
How are psychographic personalization and persuasion profiling different from more familiar forms of personalization and recommendation systems? A big difference is that they focus on selecting the “how” or the “means” of inducing you to an action — rather than selecting the “what” or the “ends”. Given the recent interest in this kind of personalization, I wanted to highlight some excerpts from something Maurits Kaptein and I wrote in 2010.1
This post excerpts our 2010 article, a version of which was published as:
Kaptein, M., & Eckles, D. (2010). Selecting effective means to any end: Futures and ethics of persuasion profiling. In International Conference on Persuasive Technology (pp. 82-93). Springer Lecture Notes in Computer Science.
For more on this topic, see these papers.
We distinguish between those adaptive persuasive technologies that adapt the particular ends they try to bring about and those that adapt their means to some end.
First, there are systems that use models of individual users to select particular ends that are instantiations of more general target behaviors. If the more general target behavior is book buying, then such a system may select which specific books to present.
Second, adaptive persuasive technologies that change their means adapt the persuasive strategy that is used — independent of the end goal. One could offer the same book and for some people show the message that the book is recommended by experts, while for others emphasizing that the book is almost out of stock. Both messages be may true, but the effect of each differs between users.
Example 2. Ends adaptation in recommender systems
Pandora is a popular music service that tries to engage music listeners and persuade them into spending more time on the site and, ultimately, subscribe. For both goals it is beneficial for Pandora if users enjoy the music that is presented to them by achieving a match between the music offering to individual, potentially latent music preferences. In doing so, Pandora adaptively selects the end — the actual song that is listened to and that could be purchased, rather than the means — the reasons presented for the selection of one specific song.
The distinction between end-adaptive persuasive technologies and means-adaptive persuasive technologies is important to discuss since adaptation in the latter case could be domain independent. In end adaptation, we can expect that little of the knowledge of the user that is gained by the system can be used in other domains (e.g. book preferences are likely minimally related to optimally specifying goals in a mobile exercise coach). Means adaptation is potentially quite the opposite. If an agent expects that a person is more responsive to authority claims than to other influence strategies in one domain, it may well be that authority claims are also more effective for that user than other strategies in a different domain. While we focus on novel means-adaptive systems, it is actually quite common for human influence agents adaptively select their means.
Influence Strategies and Implementations
Means-adaptive systems select different means by which to bring about some attitude or behavior change. The distinction between adapting means and ends is an abstract and heuristic one, so it will be helpful to describe one particular way to think about means in persuasive technologies. One way to individuate means of attitude and behavior change is to identify distinct influence strategies, each of which can have many implementations. Investigators studying persuasion and compliance-gaining have varied in how they individuate influence strategies: Cialdini  elaborates on six strategies at length, Fogg  describes 40 strategies under a more general definition of persuasion, and others have listed over 100 .
Despite this variation in their individuation, influence strategies are a useful level of analysis that helps to group and distinguish specific influence tactics. In the context of means adaptation, human and computer persuaders can select influence strategies they expect to be more effective that other influence strategies. In particular, the effectiveness of a strategy can vary with attitude and behavior change goals. Different influence strategies are most effective in different stages of the attitude to behavior continuum . These range from use of heuristics in the attitude stage to use of conditioning when a behavioral change has been established and needs to be maintained . Fogg  further illustrates this complexity and the importance of considering variation in target behaviors by presenting a two-dimensional matrix of 35 classes behavior change that vary by (1) the schedule of change (e.g., one time, on cue) and (2) the type of change (e.g., perform new behavior vs. familiar behavior). So even for persuasive technologies that do not adapt to individuals, selecting an influence strategy — the means — is important. We additionally contend that influence strategies are also a useful way to represent individual differences  — differences which may be large enough that strategies that are effective on average have negative effects for some people.
Example 4. Backfiring of influence strategies
John just subscribed to a digital workout coaching service. This system measures his activity using an accelerometer and provides John feedback through a Web site. This feedback is accompanied by recommendations from a general practitioner to modify his workout regime. John has all through his life been known as authority averse and dislikes the top-down recommendation style used. After three weeks using the service, John’s exercise levels have decreased.
When systems represent individual differences as variation in responses to influence strategies — and adapt to these differences, they are engaging in persuasion profiling. Persuasion profiles are thus collections of expected effects of different influence strategies for a specific individual. Hence, an individual’s persuasion profile indicates which influence strategies — one way of individuating means of attitude and behavior change — are expected to be most effective.
Persuasion profiles can be based on demographic, personality, and behavioral data. Relying primarily on behavioral data has recently become a realistic option for interactive technologies, since vast amounts of data about individuals’ behavior in response to attempts at persuasion are currently collected. These data describe how people have responded to presentations of certain products (e.g. e-commerce) or have complied to requests by persuasive technologies (e.g. the DirectLife Activity Monitor ).
Existing systems record responses to particular messages — implementations of one or more influence strategies — to aid profiling. For example, Rapleaf uses responses by a users’ friends to particular advertisements to select the message to present to that user . If influence attempts are identified as being implementations of particular strategies, then such systems can “borrow strength” in predicting responses to other implementations of the same strategy or related strategies. Many of these scenarios also involve the collection of personally identifiable information, so persuasion profiles can be associated with individuals across different sessions and services.
Consequences of Means Adaptation
In the remainder of this paper we will focus on the implications of the usage of persuasion profiles in means-adaptive persuasive systems. There are two properties of these systems which make this discussion important:
1. End-independence: Contrary to profiles used by end-adaptive persuasive sys- tems the knowledge gained about people in means-adaptive systems can be used independent from the end goal. Hence, persuasion profiles can be used independent of context and can be exchanged between systems.
2. Undisclosed: While the adaptation in end-adaptive persuasive systems is often most effective when disclosed to the user, this is not necessarily the case in means-adaptive persuasive systems powered by persuasion profiles. Selecting a different influence strategy is likely less salient than changing a target behavior and thus will often not be noticed by users.
Although through the previous examples and the discussion of adaptive persuasive systems these two notions have already been hinted upon, we feel it is important to examine each in more detail.
Means-adaptive persuasive technologies are distinctive in their end-independence: a persuasion profile created in one context can be applied to bringing about other ends in that same context or to behavior or attitude change in a quite different context. This feature of persuasion profiling is best illustrated by contrast with end adaptation.
Any adaptation that selects the particular end (or goal) of a persuasive attempt is inherently context-specific. Though there may be associations between individual differences across context (e.g., between book preferences and political attitudes) these associations are themselves specific to pairs of contexts. On the other hand, persuasion profiles are designed and expected to be independent of particular ends and contexts. For example, we propose that a person’s tendency to comply more to appeals by experts than to those by friends is present both when looking at compliance to a medical regime as well as purchase decisions.
It is important to clarify exactly what is required for end-independence to obtain. If we say that a persuasion profile is end-independent than this does not imply that the effectiveness of influence strategies is constant across all contexts. Consistent with the results reviewed in section 3, we acknowledge that influence strategy effectiveness depends on, e.g., the type of behavior change. That is, we expect that the most effective influence strategy for a system to employ, even given the user’s persuasion profile, would depend on both context and target behavior. Instead, end-independence requires that the difference between the average effect of a strategy for the population and the effect of that strategy for a specific individual is relatively consistent across contexts and ends.
Implications of end-independence.
From end-independence, it follows that persuasion profiles could potentially be created by, and shared with, a number of systems that use and modify these profiles. For example, the profile constructed from observing a user’s online shopping behavior can be of use in increasing compliance in saving energy. Behavioral measures in latter two contexts can contribute to refining the existing profile.2
Not only could persuasion profiles be used across contexts within a single organization, but there is the option of exchanging the persuasion profiles between corporations, governments, other institutions, and individuals. A market for persuasion profiles could develop , as currently exists for other data about consumers. Even if a system that implements persuasion profiling does so ethically, once constructed the profiles can be used for ends not anticipated by its designers.
Persuasion profiles are another kind of information about individuals collected by corporations that individuals may or have effective access to. This raises issues of data ownership. Do individuals have access to their complete persuasion profiles or other indicators of the contents of the profiles? Are individuals compensated for this valuable information ? If an individual wants to use Amazon’s persuasion profile to jump-start a mobile exercise coach’s adaptation, there may or may not be technical and/or legal mechanisms to obtain and transfer this profile.
Means-adaptive persuasive systems are able and likely to not disclose that they are adapting to individuals. This can be contrasted with end adaptation, in which it is often advantageous for the agent to disclose the adaption and potentially easy to detect. For example, when Amazon recommends books for an individual it makes clear that these are personalized recommendations — thus benefiting from effects of apparent personalization and enabling presenting reasons why these books were recommended. In contrast, with means adaptation, not only may the results of the adaptation be less visible to users (e.g. emphasizing either “Pulitzer Prize winning” or “International bestseller”), but disclosure of the adaptation may reduce the target attitude or behavior change.
It is hypothesized that the effectiveness of social influence strategies is, at least partly, caused by automatic processes. According to dual-process models , un- der low elaboration message variables manipulated in the selection of influence strategies lead to compliance without much thought. These dual-process models distinguish between central (or systematic) processing, which is characterized by elaboration on and consideration of the merits of presented arguments, and pe- ripheral (or heuristic) processing, which is characterized by responses to cues as- sociated with, but peripheral to the central arguments of, the advocacy through the application of simple, cognitively “cheap”, but fallible rules . Disclosure of means adaptation may increase elaboration on the implementations of the selected influence strategies, decreasing their effectiveness if they operate primarily via heuristic processing. More generally, disclosure of means adaptation is a disclosure of persuasive intent, which can increase elaboration and resistance to persuasion.
Implications of non-disclosure. The fact that persuasion profiles can be obtained and used without disclosing this to users is potentially a cause for concern. Potential reductions in effectiveness upon disclosure incentivize system designs to avoid disclosure of means adaptation.
Non-disclosure of means adaptation may have additional implications when combined with value being placed on the construction of an accurate persuasion profile. This requires some explanation. A simple system engaged in persuasion profiling could select influence strategies and implementations based on which is estimated to have the largest effect in the present case; the model would thus be engaged in passive learning. However, we anticipate that systems will take a more complex approach, employing active learning techniques [e.g., 6]. In active learning the actions selected by the system (e.g., the selection of the influence strategy and its implementation) are chosen not only based on the value of any resulting attitude or behavior change but including the value predicted improvements to the model resulting from observing the individual’s response. Increased precision, generality, or comprehensiveness of a persuasion profile may be valued (a) because the profile will be more effective in the present context or (b) because a more precise profile would be more effective in another context or more valuable in a market for persuasion profiles.
These later cases involve systems taking actions that are estimated to be non-optimal for their apparent goals. For example, a mobile exercise coach could present a message that is not estimated to be the most effective in increasing overall activity level in order to build a more precise, general, or comprehensive persuasion profile. Users of such a system might reasonably expect that it is designed to be effective in coaching them, but it is in fact also selecting actions for other reasons, e.g., selling precise, general, and comprehensive persuasion profiles is part of the company’s business plan. That is, if a system is designed to value constructing a persuasion profile, its behavior may differ substantially from its anticipated core behavior.
 Aarts, E.H.L., Markopoulos, P., Ruyter, B.E.R.: The persuasiveness of ambient intelligence. In: Petkovic, M., Jonker, W. (eds.) Security, Privacy and Trust in Modern Data Management. Springer, Heidelberg (2007)
 Baker, S.: Learning, and profiting, from online friendships. BusinessWeek 9(22) (May 2009)Selecting Effective Means to Any End 93
 Berdichevsky, D., Neunschwander, E.: Toward an ethics of persuasive technology. Commun. ACM 42(5), 51–58 (1999)
 Cacioppo, J.T., Petty, R.E., Kao, C.F., Rodriguez, R.: Central and peripheral routes to persuasion: An individual difference perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 51(5), 1032–1043 (1986)
 Cialdini, R.: Influence: Science and Practice. Allyn & Bacon, Boston (2001)
 Cohn,D.A., Ghahramani,Z.,Jordan,M.I.:Active learning with statistical models. Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research 4, 129–145 (1996)
 Eckles, D.: Redefining persuasion for a mobile world. In: Fogg, B.J., Eckles, D. (eds.) Mobile Persuasion: 20 Perspectives on the Future of Behavior Change. Stanford Captology Media, Stanford (2007)
 Fogg, B.J.: Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do. Morgan Kaufmann, San Francisco (2002)
 Fogg, B.J.: Protecting consumers in the next tech-ade, U.S. Federal Trade Commission hearing (November 2006), http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/workshops/techade/pdfs/transcript_061107.pdf
 Fogg,B.J.:The behavior grid: 35 ways behavior can change. In: Proc. of Persuasive Technology 2009, p. 42. ACM, New York (2009)
 Kaptein, M., Aarts, E.H.L., Ruyter, B.E.R., Markopoulos, P.: Persuasion in am- bient intelligence. Journal of Ambient Intelligence and Humanized Computing 1, 43–56 (2009)
 Lacroix, J., Saini, P., Goris, A.: Understanding user cognitions to guide the tai- loring of persuasive technology-based physical activity interventions. In: Proc. of Persuasive Technology 2009, vol. 350, p. 9. ACM, New York (2009)
 Petty, R.E., Wegener, D.T.: The elaboration likelihood model: Current status and controversies. In: Chaiken, S., Trope, Y. (eds.) Dual-process theories in social psychology, pp. 41–72. Guilford Press, New York (1999)
 Prabhaker, P.R.: Who owns the online consumer? Journal of Consumer Market- ing 17, 158–171 (2000)
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 Rhoads, K.: How many influence, persuasion, compliance tactics & strategies are there? (2007), http://www.workingpsychology.com/numbertactics.html
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- We were of course influenced by B.J. Fogg’s previous use of the term ‘persuasion profiling’, including in his comments to the Federal Trade Commission in 2006. [↩]
- This point can also be made in the language of interaction effects in analysis of variance: Persuasion profiles are estimates of person–strategy interaction effects. Thus, the end-independence of persuasion profiles requires not that the two-way strategy– context interaction effect is small, but that the three-way person–strategy–context interaction is small. [↩]
I just recently watched this talk by Jack Conte, musician, video artist, and cofounder of Patreon:
Jack dives into how rapidly the Internet has disrupted the business of selling reproducible works, such as recorded music, investigative reporting, etc. And how important — and exciting — it is build new ways for the people who create these works to be able to make a living doing so. Of course, Jack has some particular ways of doing that in mind — such as subscriptions and subscription-like patronage of artists, such as via Patreon.
“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”
I certainly agree that many other types of research can be very important and impactful, and often more so than working on data infrastructure, machine learning, market design, etc. for advertising. However, Jack Conte’s talk certainly helped make the case for me that monetization of “content” is something that has been disrupted already but needs some of the best minds to figure out new ways for creators of valuable works to make money.
Some of this might be coming up with new arrangements altogether. But it seems like this will continue to occur partially through advertising revenue. Jack highlights how little ad revenue he often saw — even as his videos were getting millions of views. And newspapers’ have been less able to monetize online attention through advertising than they had been able to in print.
Some of this may reflect that advertising dollars were just really poorly allocated before. But improving this situation will require a mix of work on advertising — certainly beyond just getting people to click on ads — such as providing credible measurement of the effects and ROI of advertising, improving targeting of advertising, and more.
Another side of this question is that advertising remains an important part of our culture and force for attitude and behavior change. Certainly looking back on 2016 right now, many people are interested in what effects political advertising had.
So maybe it isn’t so bad if at least some of our best minds are working on online advertising.
- So often repeated that Hammerbacher said to Charlie Rose, “That’s going to be on my tombstone, I think.” [↩]
Psychologists have posited numerous psychological traits and described causal roles they ought to play in determining human behavior. Most often, the canonical measure of a trait is a questionnaire. Investigators obtain this measure for some people and analyze how their scores predict some outcomes of interest. For example, many people have been interested in how psychological traits affect persuasion processes. Traits like need for cognition (NFC) have been posited and questionnaire items developed to measure them. Among other things, NFC affects how people respond to messages with arguments for varying quality.
How useful are these traits for explanation, prediction, and adaptive interaction? I can’t address all of this here, but I want to sketch an argument for their irrelevance to adaptive interaction — and then offer a tentative rejoinder.
Interactive technologies can tailor their messages to the tastes and susceptibilities of the people interacting with and through them. It might seem that these traits should figure in the statistical models used to make these adaptive selections. After all, some of the possible messages fit for, e.g., coaching a person to meet their exercise goals are more likely to be effective for low NFC people than high NFC people, and vice versa. However, the standard questionnaire measures of NFC cannot often be obtained for most users — certainly not in commerce settings, and even people signing up for a mobile coaching service likely don’t want to answer pages of questions. On the other hand, some Internet and mobile services have other abundant data available about their users, which could perhaps be used to construct an alternative measure of these traits. The trait-based-adaptation recipe is:
- obtain the questionnaire measure of the trait for a sample,
- predict this measure with data available for many individuals (e.g., log data),
- use this model to construct a measure for out-of-sample individuals.
This new measure could then be used to personalize the interactive experience based on this trait, such that if a version performs well (or poorly) for people with a particular score on the trait, then use (or don’t use) that version for people with similar scores.
But why involve the trait at all? Why not just personalize the interactive experience based on the responses of similar others? Since the new measure of the trait is just based on the available behavioral, demographic, and other logged data, one could simply predict responses based on those measure. Put in geometric terms, if the goal is to project the effects of different message onto available log data, why should one project the questionnaire measure of the trait onto the available log data and then project the effects onto this projection? This seems especially unappealing if one doesn’t fully trust the questionnaire measure to be accurate or one can’t be sure about which the set of all the traits that make a (substantial) difference.
I find this argument quite intuitively appealing, and it seems to resonate with others.1 But I think there are some reasons the recipe above could still be appealing.
One way to think about this recipe is as dimensionality reduction guided by theory about psychological traits. Available log data can often be used to construct countless predictors (or “features”, as the machine learning people call them). So one can very quickly get into a situation where the effective number of parameters for a full model predicting the effects of different messages is very large and will make for poor predictions. Nothing — no, not penalized regression, not even a support vector machine — makes this problem go away. Instead, one has to rely on the domain knowledge of the person constructing the predictors (i.e., doing the “feature engineering”) to pick some good ones.
So the tentative rejoinder is this: established psychological traits might often make good dimensions to predict effects of different version of a message, intervention, or experience with. And they may “come with” suggestions about what kinds of log data might serve as measures of them. They would be expected to be reusable across settings. Thus, I think this recipe is nonetheless deserves serious attention.
- I owe some clarity on this to some conversations with Mike Nowak and Maurits Kaptein. [↩]
Some recent journalism at NPR and The New York Times has addressed some aspects of the “friendly world syndrome” created by personalized media. A theme common to both pieces is that people want to encounter different perspectives and will use available resources to do so. I’m a bit more skeptical.
If we keep seeing the same links and catchphrases ricocheting around our social networks, it might mean we are being exposed only to what we want to hear, says Damon Centola, an assistant professor of economic sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“You might say to yourself: ‘I am in a group where I am not getting any views other than the ones I agree with. I’m curious to know what else is out there,’” Professor Centola says.
Consider a new hashtag: diversity.
This is how Singer ends this article in which the central example is “icantdateyou” leading Egypt-related idioms as a trending topic on Twitter. The suggestion here, by Centola and Singer, is that people will notice they are getting a biased perspective of how many people agree with them and what topics people care about — and then will take action to get other perspectives.
Why am I skeptical?
First, I doubt that we really realize the extent to which media — and personalized social media in particular — bias their perception of the frequency of beliefs and events. Even though people know that fiction TV programs (e.g., cop shows) don’t aim to represent reality, heavy TV watchers (on average) substantially overestimate the percent of adult men employed in law enforcement.1 That is, the processes that produce the “friendly world syndrome” function without conscious awareness and, perhaps, even despite it. So people can’t consciously choose to seek out diverse perspectives if they don’t know they are increasingly missing them.
Second, I doubt that people actually want diversity of perspectives all that much. Even if I realize divergent views are missing from my media experience, why would I seek them out? This might be desirable for some people (but not all), and even for those, the desire to encounter people who radically disagree has its limits.
Similar ideas pop up in a NPR All Things Considered segment by Laura Sydell. This short piece (audio, transcript) is part of NPR’s “Cultural Fragmentation” series.2 The segment begins with the worry that offline bubbles are replicated online and quotes me describing how attempts to filter for personal relevance also heighten the bias towards agreement in personalized media.
But much of the piece has actually focuses on how one person — Kyra Gaunt, a professor and musician — is using Twitter to connect and converse with new and different people. Gaunt describes her experience on Twitter as featuring debate, engagement, and “learning about black people even if you’ve never seen one before”. Sydell’s commentary identifies the public nature of Twitter as an important factor in facilitating experiencing diverse perspectives:
But, even though there is a lot of conversation going on among African Americans on Twitter, Professor Gaunt says it’s very different from the closed nature of Facebook because tweets are public.
I think this is true to some degree: much of the content produced by Facebook users is indeed public, but Facebook does not make it as easily searchable or discoverable (e.g., through trending topics). But more importantly, Facebook and Twitter differ in their affordances for conversation. Facebook ties responses to the original post, which means both that the original poster controls who can reply and that everyone who replies is part of the same conversation. Twitter supports replies through the @reply mechanism, so that anyone can reply but the conversation is fragmented, as repliers and consumers often do not see all replies. So, as I’ve described, even if you follow a few people you disagree with on Twitter, you’ll most likely see replies from the other people you follow, who — more often than not — you agree with.
Gaunt’s experience with Twitter is certainly not typical. She has over 3,300 followers and follows over 2,400, so many of her posts will generate replies from people she doesn’t know well but whose replies will appear in her main feed. And — if she looks beyond her main feed to the @Mentions page — she will see the replies from even those she does not follow herself. On the other hand, her followers will likely only see her posts and replies from others they follow.3
Nonetheless, Gaunt’s case is worth considering further, as does Sydell:
SYDELL: Gaunt says she’s made new friends through Twitter.
GAUNT: I’m meeting strangers. I met with two people I had engaged with through Twitter in the past 10 days who I’d never met in real time, in what we say in IRL, in real life. And I met them, and I felt like this is my tribe.
SYDELL: And Gaunt says they weren’t black. But the key word for some observers is tribe. Although there are people like Gaunt who are using social media to reach out, some observers are concerned that she is the exception to the rule, that most of us will be content to stay within our race, class, ethnicity, family or political party.
So Professor Gaunt is likely making connections with people she would not have otherwise. But — it is at least tempting to conclude from “this is my tribe” — they are not people with radically different beliefs and values, even if they have arrived at those beliefs and values from a membership in a different race or class.
- Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1980). The “Mainstreaming” of America: Violence Profile No. 11. Journal of Communication, 30(3), 10-29. [↩]
- I was also interviewed for the NPR segment. [↩]
- One nice feature in “new Twitter” — the recently refresh of the Twitter user interface — is that clicking on a tweet will show some of the replies to it in the right column. This may offer an easier way for followers to discover diverse replies to the people they follow. But it is also not particularly usable, as it is often difficult to even trace what a reply is a reply to. [↩]