What happens if our emotions are viral too?
Image: Gisela Giardano/Flickr
It hopefully doesn't come as a surprise that your friends shape who you are. But we tend to think of that on a micro level: If your close circle of friends tends to have tattoos, wear polo shirts, or say "chill" a lot, it's quite possible that you'll emulate them over time—and they'll emulate you too.
But what happens on a macro scale, when your friend circle doesn't just include the dozen people you actually hang out with regularly, but also the hundreds or thousands of acquaintances you have online? All of those feeds may seem filled with frivolities from random people (and they are!) but that steady stream of life updates—photos, rants, slang—are probably shaping you more than you think.
A massive Facebook study recently published in PNAS found solid evidence of so-called emotional contagion—emotional states spreading socially, like a virus made of emoji—on the social network.
So rather than basing your worldview on a small circle of friends you interact with on a more personal level, your mental state ends up being affected by the random blathering of whatever portion of your social world Facebook decides to show you. This comes despite the fact that many of us don't consider Facebook interactions to be particularly weighty in the grand scheme of friendship.
Therein lies the rub: If our social networks have a larger effect on our worldview than we expect, then we're likely locking ourselves into filter bubbles that we're not consciously thinking about. (This, of course, assumes you use Facebook, Twitter, or whatever else; if you don't, more power to you.)
The authors of the PNAS study say as much in the very first line of their paper. "Emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness," the trio of Adam Kramera, Jamie Guillory, and Jeffrey Hancock writes.
Indeed, emotional contagion has been well-documented in the real world, and has been shown to be a key influencer in group behavior. This has also previously been shown to happen on Facebook—text isn't a barrier, essentially—through direct interactions; if someone messages you to say they're bummed, you're likely to end up bummed too.
"To date, however, there is no experimental evidence that emotions or moods are contagious in the absence of direct interaction between experiencer and target," the PNAS authors write.
The study group contained 689,003 English-speaking users, whose News Feeds were experimentally altered to either show fewer positive or fewer negative posts from friends. The end result? When users saw fewer negative posts in their feed, they posted fewer negative comments of their own, and more positive ones; when users saw fewer positive posts, it was the reverse.
I wouldn't be concerned that Facebook is controlling your mind or anything like that. As the authors note, "although these data provide, to our knowledge, some of the first experimental evidence to support the controversial claims that emotions can spread throughout a network, the effect sizes from the manipulations are small."
When you multiply even a small effect by Facebook's scale, things get interesting. The authors write that given "the well-documented connection between emotions and physical well-being suggests the importance of these findings for public health."
I think it's probable that emotional contagion has even wider-ranging effects. In the past year, we've seen studies suggesting that social media can predict unrest, drive kids to drink, dramatically reshape language, turn us into scattered sad people, and recalibrate our ability to even discern truth.
Of course, the usual caveats apply to each study, and it's not fair to blame Facebook for your current emotional state. We're talking about small effects spread across an enormous network, and the effects are palpable.
One example is the oft-lamented rise of clickbait and viral content in media. The reason for such formulaic content generation is the simple fact that it does really well on Facebook, and getting lots of traffic is an important goal for many internet websites.
You'll never believe the one reason such stories are popular: For whatever reason, they tap into the emotional zeitgeist, and as such spread virally. In fact, the mere existence of viral content is proof of emotional contagion. That a story can be passed across myriad, heterogeneous micro-networks shows that Facebook is capable of corralling emotion en masse.
Viral content also provides insight into why emotional contagion is something we need to acknowledge. The most valid complaint about the rise of viral content is that it encourages a uniform view of the world driven largely by whatever viewpoint is going to be most popular, in which creative thought is murdered in a death spiral of hot takes.
The media has complained about the homogenization of the media since before the internet was ever around, and probably will forever. (I know I plan to!) Yet it's hard to deny that the rise of viral content has more outlets producing more similar styles of stories more often. So what happens if our emotions are viral too?
For one, it creates an environment in which emotional waves may move more slowly across larger swathes of the population.
Previous work has shown that anger is a more viral emotion than joy, which is a fascinating finding in its own right. But think of the cause of viral anger. Simplistic plays to morality, whether it's Obama-as-socialist or some goofball Change.org petition, tend to top the list. If that stuff affects us just by reading it, as the new PNAS study suggests, then our emotions may be far more influenced by truthiness than we thought.
I'll put it this way: Think about the last time one of your friends had some sort of bad news. (I've focused on negative emotions, because viral positivity doesn't seem like too bad of a thing.) You meet up, drink a few beers or whatever it is friends do, and hash out what's really going on. And if you walk away feeling bad about the world, at least you know why.
Compare that to your social feed of choice, filled with people ranting about how shitty their boss is, how the government is taking their guns/not taking enough guns, and how men/women are all liars. You have no fucking clue if any of it is even real, and yet it's likely rubbing off on you like your subconscious stepped in a dog turd.
Again, there are positive effects; seeing your friends post about summer and puppies is probably going to make you feel good too, even if you're not fully sure why. And that's the whole point: Whether it's because we compare ourselves to or empathize with others, even when it's just a Facebook post, our social feeds are likely influencing our emotional state far more than we think.
When taken as a whole, it would suggest we've got another filter bubble on our hands, even if it is a permeable one. We've all seen how hard it can be to create something truly new on the internet, where everything is constantly evolving and remixing in a morass that largely lacks regional influence, and it seems our emotions aren't totally immune, either. As for whether that's good or bad, well, I suppose it depends on what mood Twitter is in today.