Researchers used LinkedIn to study the economic power of “weak ties.” It’s a fascinating topic and you can read about the study here. The New York Times reported on the study with the headline “LinkedIn Ran Social Experiments on 20 Million Users Over Five Years.” To put it charitably, that’s a very weird reaction.
Stepping back for a second… People are rightly worried about the power large online platforms have to influence their behavior. That topic can head down a philosophical rabbit hole, as it invites questions about agency and free will. But it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to worry about: Code is a form of governance, and we ought to question the ways companies govern our online spaces.
But that’s happening all the time! Once you become concerned about companies influencing behavior you’ll see it all around you. There’s nothing special about an A/B test in this regard. Randomized experiences are just one way that influence might happen.
However, there’s something nefarious in the colloquial meaning of someone “experimenting on you.” That sounds especially bad. The thing is that the colloquial meaning doesn’t have to involve randomization: If Facebook just tweaks how the news feed works in order to get you to click more ads, that can be a scary form of influence–and meet the colloquial definition of “experimenting” on you–even if they don’t run a randomized control trial.
And then there’s the fact that in this case, the randomization is part of the sort of thing you might hope platforms would do: Run experiments in collaboration with researchers, who no doubt gave consideration to the ethical considerations involved, in order to create new knowledge.
Of all the ways platforms might influence us, this seems like one of the least nefarious. But the word “experiment” carries a weight that then can make this seem like a uniquely worrisome thing. Worry about the influence, not the academic experiments.