bryan stratton dot com

If You’re Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention

Posted in Blog Posts by Bryan Stratton on June 30, 2014

There’s been lots of spilled digital ink in the last week or so about Facebook’s participation in an academic study to determine whether or not emotional states are “contagious.” By secretly manipulating the number of positive or negative words in the posts that appeared in users’ News Feeds, Facebook was able to detect a corresponding shift in the sentiment of those users’ own posts.

As with just about everything that the World’s Largest Social Network does, this predictably caused a flurry of sensational headlines: “Facebook’s Unethical Experiment”, “Facebook Doesn’t Understand The Fuss About Its Emotion Manipulation Study”, and my personal favorite, “Facebook Totally Screwed With A Bunch Of People In the Name of Science” (way to chase those millennials, Time!). Judging from the number of times these articles were unironically shared and commented upon on Facebook, you’d think that this was a social media calamity on par with the time that Google shared their users’ most personal information with their abusive exes. But I think that this is being blown completely out of proportion by journalists who either don’t have the proper context to understand what they’re reporting on—or who know that any headline that includes “Facebook” and “privacy” is guaranteed clickbait.

Facebook has plans to STAB YOU IN THE EYE (or something).

Facebook has plans to STAB YOU IN THE EYE (or something).

I’m a social media strategist who works with Facebook and other social platforms on a daily basis. I’m familiar with how Facebook does what it does and how it’s evolved over time. I have a pretty good idea of what it does to make its money (as does anyone who’s seen their page’s organic reach slashed in half or more over the last year). I’m also probably not completely objective, either because Facebook is indirectly responsible for a significant portion of my income, or because I actually think it’s one of the most amazing communication tools in the history of mankind. But if you’re on the verge of permanently deleting your Facebook account over this (or, let’s face it, just not posting for a few days), there are a few things you might want to consider first:

Facebook Cannot Control Your Mind (So Please Remove the Tinfoil)

If this experiment hadn’t been conducted with such a huge sample size (over 600,000 users), it’s questionable whether or not the results would even have been noticeable. After callously manipulating the emotions of more than half a million people, what did Facebook have to show for it?

When positive posts were reduced in the News Feed, the percentage of positive words in people’s status updates decreased by B =−0.1% compared with control [t(310,044) = −5.63, P < 0.001, Cohen’s d = 0.02], whereas the percentage of words that were negative increased by B = 0.04% (t = 2.71, P = 0.007, d = 0.001). Conversely, when negative posts were reduced, the percent of words that were negative decreased by B = −0.07% [t(310,541) = −5.51, P < 0.001, d = 0.02] and the percentage of words that were positive, conversely, increased by B = 0.06% (t = 2.19, P < 0.003, d = 0.008). (Source)

As I read that, Facebook was able to make you 0.1% less positive and 0.04% grumpier if they showed you more negative posts, or 0.07% happier and 0.06% less crabby when they showed you more positive posts. We’re not talking about MKUltra here.

The measuring stick they used was whether or not a software tool thought you were using more positive or negative words in your own updates, and automated sentiment analysis is an extremely iffy proposition to begin with. But even if you believe that it was 100% accurate, the net result of being bombarded with negativity in your News Feed was that you might use up to 0.2 fewer positive words per 100 in your own updates. The horror!

You Can Ethically Experiment On an Unsuspecting Public

“But it’s not the results!” says the straw man I have just invented this very second. “It’s the principle of the thing! It’s not ethical to experiment on people who don’t consent!”

Facebook’s flimsy defense is that users already consented when they accepted the site’s terms of service, which manage to be vague and overwritten at the same time. It’s probably good enough for the courtroom but not for the court of public opinion.

So here’s a different angle: some of the most famous and revealing psychological and sociological experiments have had an unsuspecting (and non-consenting) public as their subject. The Washington Post turned a world-famous violinist into a subway busker and reported on the results. The Bystander Effect has been proven repeatedly in public experiments where consent from the subjects was not solicited. And whenever sweeps week is coming up, you can bet that some local news station somewhere runs with the old “Missing Child” Poster experiment.

I understand that there’s a difference between a formal academic study and an informal behavioral experiment. And I understand that “emotional manipulation” is an accusation that, well, can manipulate you into a stronger emotional response than “ignoring a stranger” might. But I don’t recall the pitchforks and torches coming out when the results of these experiments were revealed.

This Is the Least Creepy Thing Facebook Has Done In a While

Getting lost in the discussion is the fact that this is an experiment that was conducted in partnership with the University of California and Cornell University, and that the Facebook platform represented a unique opportunity for an academic study of this scale and complexity. Researchers literally could not have learned what they learned before Facebook existed. It was their Large Hadron Collider.

Do you know what Facebook usually uses its data for? As a revenue stream from marketers who want to know everything that you’re doing and everything you like, and then serve you ads whenever your interests and activities overlap with their products or services. I’d like to think that most of us use it ethically to identify potential consumers who have a legitimate interest in what we’re offering, as opposed to just bombarding you with Viagra commercials because you’re watching golf.

But, ultimately, unless you’re being super creepy or trying to steal personal data, Facebook doesn’t get too fussy about who they take ad money from. My wife and I celebrated the birth of our first child 14 months ago, which of course we posted on Facebook. She’s been reading and sharing a lot of articles about healthy eating on Facebook, and she’s been checking in at our local gym frequently on Facebook. So what popped up in her News Feed recently? A Sponsored Post with the headline “Her Husband Left Her Because Of Her Figure.”

That’s manipulative. That’s unethical. An academic study to determine that Facebook posts have a subtle effect on your emotional state? Sorry, I can’t get worked up about it.

Maybe You Should Take a Closer Look At Your Friends List

Finally, it’s worth noting exactly what Facebook did: they automatically, anonymously selected posts that had an identifiable sentiment, and then they either increased or decreased the visibility of them. Facebook didn’t create a bunch of fake content and display it to the subjects of the study; they just promoted specific posts from their existing friends list.

And this is where I see Facebook being criticized unfairly for telling us something that is actually extremely valuable. Thanks to Facebook, we now have documented evidence that surrounding yourself with crappy people on Facebook is going to make you feel crappy as a result.

So maybe you should do something about that. Instead of getting into a tizzy about what content Facebook decides to show you from your own friend network, maybe you should weed out the uncle who won’t stop posting about how OBAMA is ruining this country, or the friend whose animal-rights advocacy seems to be limited to posting graphic images of abused dogs, or that half-remembered high school classmate who only posts when she’s got something to complain about.

Previous social media scandals have underscored the need to take control of our own privacy. Perhaps this should emphasize our need to take control of our own emotional state.

Tagged with: ,

Me: Interviewed

Posted in Blog Posts by Bryan Stratton on December 2, 2009

Hey, internet. It’s been a while. Just wanted to mention that the lovely and talented Keri Honea interviewed me for her gaming blog, Strategy Guide Love. (Apologies in advance to Keri for driving her readership away in droves with my mutterings and ramblings.)

Check it out!

FTC vs. Bloggers… FIGHT!

Posted in Blog Posts by Bryan Stratton on October 6, 2009

The Federal Trade Commission today released a document (PDF) outlining some new rules that go into effect on December 1st, the first revision of its rules regarding endorsements and product reviews since 1980. There’s some stuff in there about celebrities being able to be held liable for false claims that they make in endorsements, but the bit that’s got the internets in a huff has to do with regulating what can (and must) be said by bloggers.

Basically, if you’re pretending to be an objective reviewer of a product or service, but you’re actually being compensated in some way for posting positive reviews, the FTC can slap you with a fine of up to $11,000 per violation if you don’t disclose that compensation up front.

On the face of it, it’s an excellent modification to rules that were written back when the closest things we had to blogs were mimeographed and stapled fanzines. It’s the 21st century equivalent of forcing an advertiser to put a little “ADVERTISEMENT” banner at the top and bottom of a newspaper ad that’s formatted to look like an article.

And quite honestly, the online world probably needs something of the sort—especially in the video game industry. If you’ve never worked as a game reviewer (particularly in a staff position at a magazine), your mind would be blown by the sheer volume of swag that gets thrown your way by PR folks who desperately need you to say something great about a game that might not be.

image © Cnet.com

image © Cnet.com

The most egregious example I ever came across in my own career was back in 2000, when I was working as a News Editor for a gaming magazine that no longer exists:

A European game publisher who had the rights to make games based on a famous athlete flew me and about a dozen other U.S. journalists across the Atlantic on their own dime and put us up for a long weekend. Ostensibly, it was a press junket to visit the company’s offices and see the titles they had in development, but in reality, it was a three-day party. As soon as we got the three or four hours of previewing the company’s games out of the way, it was nothing but clubbing, fancy dining, lots of drinking and VIP seats to see their celebrity athlete compete.

When I got back to the States and had to write up the previews of the games I’d seen, I found myself in a predictable quandary: the games that they showed me weren’t very good at all, particularly their big-money athlete’s game. At the same time, I did feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for my all-expenses-paid European vacation.

I tried not to let that affect my previews—which are generally written from an optimistic perspective as a rule, since they’re not reviews of finished products—but I couldn’t swear that I was as objective as I would have been had the company just sent me builds of the games to play in the office. And when it came time to review them, I handed the duties off to someone else. So my conscience is fairly clear on that front, but I know that some of my peers chose not to take the same route.

However, as well intentioned as these new rules are, there are a number of points of concern. Dan Gillmor sums up some of them in an excellent piece posted yesterday on Mediactive:

First, the new system is unworkable in practice, which is bad enough. Worse, the rules are worryingly vague and wide-ranging. Worse yet, they appear to give traditional print and broadcast journalists a pass while applying harsh regulations to bloggers (and others using conversational media of various kinds). Worst and most important, they are, in the end, an attack on markets and free speech, based on a 20th Century notion of media and advertising that simply doesn’t map to the new era.

The advertising of the past was a one-to-many system. Call it broadcasting. The Internet is a many-to-many system. Call that conversation. They are not the same.

As an example, what’s the protocol if one of my game designer friends sends me a free copy of their latest game, which I legitimately happen to like, and I want to tweet about it? 140 characters doesn’t leave much room for me to disclose that I was given free merchandise that may or may not have influenced my opinion.

image © Kotaku.com.au

image © Kotaku.com.au

Similarly, what constitutes “compensation?” The FTC says that free product counts as compensation, but where’s the cutoff? Is the aforementioned example of a free copy of a game enough to meet that threshold? Obviously, you need a copy of the game to be able to review it, and a boxed retail copy will only make you a few bucks if you sell it when you’re done with it. Or is it a volume thing? I know plenty of people in the industry who are on so many comp lists that they haven’t bought a game in years; if they’re not sent a game that they want for free, they have plenty to trade in for enough credit to buy it outright.

I’m reassured by the fact that the FTC is saying that they’re more likely to go after advertisers rather than bloggers, and that they’re focusing on educating and informing everyone of the rules change, instead of leading off with a slew of fines. But at a certain point, these rules need to be enforced if they’re to have any teeth, and that’s when we all need to be vigilant about how that’s done and ready to kick up a fuss if necessary.

Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days

Posted in Blog Posts by Bryan Stratton on September 29, 2009

Now this is service: the same day that Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days hits retail shelves, I get a FedEx delivery of my comp copies of the guide, which I co-wrote with strategy guide vet (and all-around top-notch human) Dan Birlew.

image © Bryan Stratton

Once again, BradyGames‘ design team outdid themselves with a clean, attractive layout that doesn’t feel shoehorned into a generic template. It’s got plenty of room to breathe, which is essential for such a dense game, but it also doesn’t feel stretched to fill its 320 pages.

Many thanks to Dan, as well as Tim Cox, Leigh Davis, Michael Owen, Keith Lowe and everyone else at Brady for really knocking this one out of the park, and especially to Jeremy Blaustein, who provided some last-minute translation heroics that helped me hit deadline.

image © GameSpot

image © GameSpot

Oh, and congrats to Square-Enix on another great KH title, which I’m happy to see is already getting some good reviews.

Twenty Lousy Bucks?

Posted in Blog Posts by Bryan Stratton on September 23, 2009

That’s all that Microsoft is going to discount their 802.11g Xbox 360 network adapter, once the new 802.11n adapter hits the stands?

image © Ars Technica

The 360 might be my preferred gaming rig, and there’s not much that I don’t like about it, but the ridiculously overpriced wireless adapter has always stuck in my craw. Considering that the Wii and the PS3 are both in the 360’s price range, and that they both feature built-in wireless networking, it seems more than a little silly that Microsoft is planning on charging $80 for outdated tech that should have been included in the console in the first place.

(That being said, I’m probably going to pick one up as soon as it’s available, because I am a sausage.)

Tagged with: , , ,

Wii Price Drop

Posted in Blog Posts by Bryan Stratton on September 23, 2009

In the wii hours of the morning, Engadget confirmed that Nintendo’s flagship console would be getting a $50 discount, effective this wiikend:

For nearly three years now, the console has sold briskly at $249.99, but beginning on September 27th at Best Buy (and everywhere else, naturally), the happy-go-lucky machine will be offered for just $199.99.

image © Engadget

image © Engadget

Considering that two of the three versions of the Xbox 360 are currently priced at $250 or lower and the PS3 Slim is just $50 more, this shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. In fact, considering the true cost of Wii ownership and the fact that the Big N has managed to turn a profit on every single Wii sold (unlike most new consoles, which are loss leaders for at least a year or two), it’s a little surprising that it’s taken this long for the little white box to come down in price.

Tagged with: , , ,

Dreamcast, Ten Years (and One Week) Later

Posted in Blog Posts by Bryan Stratton on September 18, 2009
image © BradyGames, THQ, and/or WWE

image © BradyGames, THQ, and/or WWE

Apologies to my regular readership (both of you) for the long delay in updating. I was up against a crazier-than-usual deadline for my latest project, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a freelance writer, it’s that you never spend time writing stuff for free when you’ve got editors banging down your door for the text that they paid you to write.

But now that I’ve finished that project (and have finally recovered from the 28- and 33-hour all-nighters I had to pull during the last week of it), I can finally get around to writing the piece that’s been floating around in my head for the last couple of weeks.

• • •

I got my start in the games industry in May of 1999, when my girlfriend, my best friend and I packed everything we owned into a 4′ x 6′ U-Haul trailer and made the great pilgrimage from Vermont to the San Francisco Bay Area to seek our fortune. Holly had a Barnes & Noble job waiting for her in Berkeley, Matt had some savings that would get us through a month or two if things got dire, and I had nothing except a vague, “contact us when you get here” email for a job at a startup online games magazine.

At the time, I knew almost nothing about the games business. I hadn’t really played games for fun since my early high school years, and I’d only recently picked up a PlayStation, 3 1/2 years after it had first come out. My recent gaming résumé was limited to the Myst franchise, D&D-based RPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Squaresoft’s epic Final Fantasy VII. But a half-hour phone call to my hardcore gamer brother the night before armed me with enough knowledge and buzzwords about the state of the industry to bluff my way through the interview. It also didn’t hurt that they were looking to launch a “lifestyle” gaming magazine (i.e.: interviewing celebrities about video games), and I had managed to cobble together respectable entertainment journalist credentials by being one of three working journalists in Vermont who interviewed the few rock stars who came to town.

image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

That job turned out to be one of the greatest jobs I ever had, and my co-workers wound up becoming some of my best friends on the West Coast, despite the fact that most of us have since fled the Bay Area. It was one of those rare gigs where the daunting amount of work that had to be done on a daily basis didn’t feel much like work, because every workday also brought ten hours of hanging out with two dozen of the best people I’ve ever worked with. I even managed to repay my brother’s interview prep by getting him a job at the magazine a few months later.

Of course, I had to spend some serious time getting up to speed on the industry I’d doubletalked my way into. Through sheer coincidence, I was entering it just as Sega‘s final game console, the Dreamcast, launched in Japan. And did I mention that our offices were located at 650 Townsend Street, the (now former) Sega building?

image © Bizjournals.com

image © Bizjournals.com

But all of the synchronicity in the world wouldn’t have helped the Dreamcast win me over if it hadn’t also been the best game console on the market at the time, hands-down. Even once the PlayStation 2 launched, the Dreamcast’s crisp, colorful graphics absolutely blew away any other console hardware on the market, and the lineup of games it featured in its initial 12 months remains the most impressive first-generation game library in history: Soul Calibur, Sonic Adventure, Virtua Tennis, House of the Dead 2, Space Channel 5, Power Stone 2, Star Wars Episode 1: Racer, Resident Evil: Code Veronica, Chu Chu Rocket, Crazy Taxi, Sega Rally 2… the list goes on and on. It was the first console that I ever went online with, and its innovative VMU memory device predated Nintendo and Sony’s efforts to link their handheld gaming devices to their consoles.

If there was any justice in the gaming world, the Dreamcast would have established itself quickly as the dominant console and secured its place in history as one of the all-time greats. Sadly, as it turned out, it only achieved the latter, and only among those of us who were there for the ride. It had the misfortune of launching at a time when its parent company was hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, when the Japanese and American arms of the company could not overcome their cultural differences, and when Sony was preparing a marketing offensive for the PlayStation 2’s launch that would make the Dreamcast’s record-setting launch look like someone selling old VCRs at a flea market.

In a sad bit of tragic irony, Sega Chairman Isao Okawa forgave $40 million owed to him by Sega Corporation and gave it control of his nearly $700 million in Sega stock, shortly before his death in March of 2001. That was the same month that Sega discontinued the Dreamcast.

The magazine I worked for in San Francisco had gone belly-up less than a year prior, one of many casualties of the dot-com bust. And despite the fact that I’ve landed quite well and am fortunate enough to earn a good living from doing a number of things that I love, my memories of 1999-2000 will always exist on an untouchable plateau. I might have been born a generation too early to enjoy the Summer of Love, but I don’t think I’d trade the Year of the Dreamcast for anything.

• • •

For more reminiscences of the Dreamcast on its tenth birthday, see the excellent series of articles on Bitmob.com, where I’d originally hoped that this piece would wind up.

Here’s Something Else to Worry About!

Posted in Blog Posts by Bryan Stratton on September 8, 2009

Hey parents! Here’s something else that you should be freaked out about when it comes to your children and the internet. From today’s Gizmodo:

If you buy software to protect your kids from the scary parts of the internet, you should be careful that it’s not spying on their private conversations for profit. Because that’s exactly what they’ve been doing.

image © Gizmodo

image © Gizmodo

Much as I love the internet, I don’t think I’ll be letting my as-yet-unconceived children get near it until their 43rd birthday.

Tagged with: ,

Google Maps Monopoly

Posted in Blog Posts by Bryan Stratton on September 8, 2009
image © Hasbro

image © Hasbro

Go ahead and make all of the obvious jokes. Tomorrow, Google and Hasbro are releasing Monopoly City Streets, which turns the entire world into one giant game of Monopoly. It’s a capitalist dream, and it might be the only way you’ll actually be able to buy or sell a house in this economy.

Tagged with: , ,

Rock Band DLC 9/8

Posted in Blog Posts by Bryan Stratton on September 4, 2009

Here’s the weekly update on what you’ll be able to download for Rock Band next week:

Tracks available on Xbox 360 (Sept. 8th) and PLAYSTATION 3 system (Sept. 10th):

  • Freezepop – “Get Ready 2 Rokk” *
  • Freezepop – “Less Talk More Rokk” *
  • Freezepop – “Science Genius Girl” *
  • Jonathan Coulton – “Re: Your Brains” *
  • MC Frontalot – “Origin of Species” *
  • Paul & Storm – “Opening Band” *
  • 3 Doors Down – “Kryptonite”
  • AFI – “Miss Murder”
  • Audioslave – “Gasoline”
  • Jackson 5 – “ABC”
image © Bryan Stratton

image © Bryan Stratton

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.