Facebook has been accused of deliberately crashing its own Android app to see whether users would abandon the social media giant. The result: they didn’t. They kept coming back, no matter how long the app remained broken. In the face of a potential booting from the Play Store, the test appears to be a successful war drill, but what does this psychological probing mean for users?
Facebook: the emotion machine
Facebook’s desire to experiment on its user base comes as little surprise now, but the steady stream of revelations is beginning to carry the momentum of a torrent.
The most eyebrow-raising moment came when Facebook presented a research paper on how it had doctored news feeds to make people feel happy or sad via “emotional contagion”. The paper suggested that when users saw happy posts, they were more likely to post happier things, and more likely to post sadder things if they saw negative posts.
It was a psychological experiment on a massive scale, and Facebook did not request the informed consent of a single participant. But it’s OK: Facebook “never meant to upset you”. The irony is as dry as winter air.
When Facebook’s Safety Check feature was launched, it was intended to allow users to ‘check in’ in the wake of a natural disaster. This role of tracing the whereabouts and wellbeing of people in disaster areas is traditionally played by the state.
Most recently used in the wake of the Paris attacks, the tool might be seen, and is self-anointed by Facebook, as a ''Social Good'', but a more cynical eye might see it as an insidious use of human disaster to float the platform as the de facto space for online interaction, drip feeding us comfort in a sea of grief, cementing an emotional reliance.
The perfect product
Toying with emotions is fun when you have millions of them to play with, but Facebook is a product, and, as such, is largely preoccupied with getting customers to return.
From figuring out ways for Facebook to work offline to phantom notifications luring you back, the social media behemoth is constantly adjusting the formula to make the next visit undeniable. And when customer loyalty determines expansion or collapse, Facebook’s ears really begin to prick.
The Google threat
When Facebook began playing with automatic app downloads within its apps, intending to plunge users down the social media rabbit hole, it began testing the Play Store rules. Google is not averse to kicking high-profile names, such as Amazon, out of the Play Store.
Removal from the Play Store would mean no more in-app purchases, push notifications or automatic updates, which is a big deal, but it would also mean the removal of user convenience. The hardest part of expulsion would be getting users to migrate to a new app, independent of the Play Store. Could excommunication spell trouble for Facebook?
Facebook's contingency plan
So, as The Information reported, Facebook took its app and broke it. And they broke it for longer and longer periods of time, testing users' thresholds. The result was that Facebook could not find the breaking point: habituation appeared complete. Users either kept trying the app until it worked again, or they moved to the mobile site: there was no mass exodus, no armageddon.
The experiment proved that users, no matter even if the Facebook app was broken, were not prepared to give up using the platform. They found another way. This dependence means Facebook can see the first signs that breaking away from the Play Store is not such a daunting option.
A view of the surroundings
Disclaimers aside – the test took place in a “small country” and was only conducted once, several years ago – the experiment is a confident toe in the water for Facebook.
It is the company's latest, and arguably most successful, attempt to figure out a way of gaining independence from Android while still existing within Google's massive ecosystem. The test was carried out without users' knowledge, let alone consent, and what option do users have, even if they are made aware of what Facebook is up to? The platform is so huge, and so deeply entwined with so many users' lives that alternatives are not easy to come by. This is exactly what makes Facebook so imposing to Google.
What does it all mean? It means Facebook wants you, and it’s willing to work hard to keep you. And when it has billions of dollars at its disposal, it means you may find yourself subject to experimentation. Your choice is to jump ship or lie down on the operating table.