The Mind On Stage

Fictional worlds, cognition, and emotion

Fiction and the Facebook Experiment

Does our anger at Facebook echo our anger at authors?

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In case you missed it, a study was recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that emotion contagion works online, in the social network Facebook, in similar ways to how it works in the real world.

This isn’t the first study to be published based off of what users do on Facebook. Note the predictive power of “likes” in another PNAS published study here. However, this one seemed to cause a lot of anger and fear as a result of people feeling “manipulated” and “tricked” into an experiment in mood manipulation that they hadn’t known they were signing up for.  A basic summary is that for a week, Facebook tweaked its algorithm of what showed up in user’s feeds so that posts with negative words were removed, or posts with positive words were removed, or posts with any emotion words were removed. Researchers then tracked whether the users varied in the types of emotion words they used, and the amount of total Facebook use. You can find very good articles about the study and reactions to it in the Atlantic (What do we knowWas it creepy?), and Shankar Vedantam has a nice series of tweets here.

Leaving aside the controversy about whether this was ethical research (and frankly, I had assumed Facebook did this kind of this all the time, and it’s only the publication in PNAS that’s surprising), what this did remind me of is how we react to plot twists, deaths, and other emotional manipulations in fiction. People get angry at authors and screenwriters for what they consider “unnecessary” deaths. People get angry when they feel “cheaply” manipulated by fiction, but not when they are actually manipulated for the purposes of narrative or storytelling. If it’s in the service of a good story, and within the bounds of what we were looking for, then it’s ok. If we signed up to watch a sad movie, and it makes us sad, great!  If we signed up for a lighthearted comedy and along the way there’s a huge tragedy, then maybe not so much.

Deaths of characters also cause strong reactions from audience members. When a character dies to further the story, then it’s considered generally OK, if sad. However, when audience members are strongly attached to characters (for example, in the Harry Potter series or the Mockingjay series), then authors find themselves under strong pressure to keep characters alive, even when their deaths might serve a narrative purpose. And main characters who do die may make readers feel as though they're just "being made to cry" without reason. It's become a running joke almost, with some creators (George RR Martin and Joss Whedon come to mind), that audiences shouldn't get too attached to any character, lest they are the next to be killed. 

There is also outcry and anger when an adaptation varies from original source material too much, particularly when moving from epic blockbuster books to epic blockbuster movies and TV shows. Audiences want to know what they’re getting into, and hold onto favorite moments from source materials with passion. The HBO show Game of Thrones has been receiving flack from its insertion of sexual violence where there is none in the book. The violence does not seem to be in the service of character development or moving the plot beyond provocation of the audience. It's not the mere fact that sexual violence occurs in the series, but the fact that it feels unnecessary to service the story, I believe, that causes anger.

In a class I taught this past semester, we discussed a new play entitled We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.  In this play, 6 “actors” are putting on a play about the first genocide of the 20th century—the German genocide of the Herero tribe in what is now Namibia. While setting up the play within the play, the “actors” go to some extremely dark places having to do with race, and specifically the racial violence of the American South in the mid 20th century. In the class I taught, the director of the premiere productions came to speak with the class on dealing with race in the post-Obama era, and particularly about creating horrific scenes onstage, and how audiences deal with such things. He said that despite what was happening onstage night after night only rarely did someone leave the audience. Which to him meant, in some way, we were all guilty of simply witnessing, rather than trying to stop, the horrors occurring onstage. 

Yet in fiction, we as audience members trust the author, the director and the actors to take us on a journey. We trust that they have a vision and that we are willing to go with them on the journey that they will take us to a conclusion. This assumption, I believe, also underlies anger at finales that don’t live up to an audience’s desire for closure to a journey—a closure promised as having been a goal all along. If the creators of a show mess up the closure, then it’s assumed they weren’t to be trusted from the beginning (See: the entire series of How I Met Your Mother, Lost, The Sopranos being “ruined” by the last 5 minutes of the last episode).

The anger at Facebook may come from feeling manipulated where people thought there was an implicit trust that Facebook was only there to serve one purpose—allowing people to connect. It may also come from the feeling that it’s unnecessary for Facebook to do this type of manipulation, that the company is doing well enough without needing to see if they can tweak people’s emotions. Much as when we are engaged in a novel, play, or movie, and a death or act of violence tweaks our emotions and we feel cheated, or “played”, because the movie had our attention anyway, and the death does not seem to serve a real purpose. We want what we signed up for.

Yet we sign up to be tweaked and changed and manipulated by fiction all the time. But the nature of the manipulation makes an important difference—it’s OK to be moved to tears if we signed up to watch a sappy romance, but not if we signed up to watch a sitcom.

Thalia R. Goldstein, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Psychology at Pace University researching children's role play, pretend, and acting.

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