Emotional Engineering: Has Facebook been messing with my mind?

Yes, I admit, I am a fan of conspiracy theories. In a nutshell, I prefer to watch over Big Brother, than letting Big Brother watch over me. Recently I viewed a Vice episode about Brazil’s Retaliation of FIFA, World Cup 2014, and the upcoming Olympics. A very surprising example of Digital Eyes of Mordor is the multitude cameras installed by the government in a few of most notoriously troublesome slums surrounding the World Cup stadium. The show argues that the cameras have been installed to spy on the population, as opposed to using these constantly live streams to respond quickly to gang activities and other extremely dangerous situations occurring in the slums daily.

But do we really need to go as far as Brazil to find some concrete reasons for concern relating to our freedom of opportunity? Not really! Although in its core, the Internet is supposed to allow us all to connect freely. Certainly, the “freely” aspect has been rapidly challenged in recent years. Concerns relating to Net Neutrality, for example, are on the forefront of many social media scholars.

There’s really no need going that far, though. Even if you are not a conspiracy theorist, I am sure you have also noticed how your personal information, Google searches, and location coordinates are being constantly pinging away all manners of personal data from your digital devices. Where does it all go? Some black cloud or the Death Star? I sure don’t know.

One of the creepiest things I have been noticing in the past year or so, is how Facebook “nonchalantly” reorganizes my feed, grouping certain updates together. Most of the time they are harmless, border-lining ridiculous. Nonetheless, the scrutiny over MY private info is disturbing. And I have often wondered about who makes the decisions regarding what I see on my wall, and what is it that I don’t get on my feed?

But it gets even worst! Apparently, in January 2012 “Facebook identified 689,003 English speaking users to run a psychological experiment on, for the duration of a week. They began to manipulate the newsfeed of a group of these users to remove posts with a negative emotion attached to them, and removed all posts with a positive emotion for the other group. The objective of the study – can we be emotionally influenced by what we see in our Facebook newsfeed? And if so, how much?” (Singh, 2014)

This tale gets even creepier. What Facebook has done is performing A/B testing-type experiment. Even though the ethics of such approach are certainly questionable, all the legal concerns are ironed perfectly in the company’s Terms of Service document all Facebook users must sign prior to starting socializing.

Sadly, Facebook isn’t the only social networking platform to use us as guenea pigs. On the Contrary!

“In fact – this is true for most (if not all) social networks. LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, Pinterest – all of these websites are designed and engineered to influence us to click more, engage more and interact more with them. The nature of their algorithms is never revealed, but one thing is always made clear – they’re doing all they can to give us as much relevant content as possible.” (Singh, 2014)

 Emotional Engineering

Photo courtesy Social Media Today website

   Yet the most disturbing aspect of such hidden, but ongoing experiments are focused on emotional engineering — which has been Facebook’s business model from the very start. (Singh, 20134)

In a way, Facebook proved that “by taking a group of close to 700,000 – proved that if push comes to shove, sway the opinion of the 1.3+ billion people that use the service.” So what happens if a “political candidate that’s backed by a network like Facebook essentially be able to get more votes?” (Singh, 2014)

Scary, isn’t it?

But are you really surprised?




Net Neutrality: What You Need to Know Now. (n.d.). Free Press. Retrieved July 1, 2014, from http://www.savetheinternet.com/net-neutrality-what-you-need-know-now

Singh, A. R. (2014, July 1). Facebook’s Been Running Psychological Experiments On You. RSS. Retrieved July 1, 2014, from http://socialmediatoday.com/avtar-ram-singh/2564701/facebooks-been-running-psychological-experiments-you

Self-Exploratorium — Or why I take selfies

Last night I had the rare opportunity of seeing the sun setting over Lake Michigan, in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood. Even though I live about 45 minutes from the city, and travel to Chicago 4 times a week, this was the first time I set so close to the lake in Chicagoland. Although to many it might seem as a banal and insignificant event — for me it was an important and moving experience.

I will not go into full foreclosure here, besides noting that it took me almost 4 years to start driving again, after a traumatic experience that has changed my life in 2009; and, as a result, moving to this area in June of 2010. In any event, going to places like Edgewater, on MY OWN, and taking a moment to ponder the importance of such occasion is, in my book, a remarkable accomplishment.

So I sit by the lake, it’s sunset, and I find it all deeply moving and beautiful. After a little while I pull out my iPhone 5, and begin shooting short bits of video — between 45 and 90 seconds in length. Removed one step from the scenery, I realize that I can observe the clouds even better via the cell phone screen than through a naked eyes. Comically, the clouds looked like Felix the Cat that was lying on his back, with his round head and triangular ears pointing southward. “It has been a long time since I’ve had the time to see the clouds,” I whisper to the camera, as I pan slowly along Felix’s imaginary, to the right. And then BOOM! Something amazing happens. A bright lightning strikes like a match through the blue enmeshment of clouds, lake, and sky, and — I get it on camera, candid and glorious!

I immediately check the footage. Yes! It has really happened. I have this on camera! And I know exactly what I’m going to do about it: I will trim it to a 15-second selfie, and post it on my Instagram.



Although some consider this phenomenon to be a form of narcissism, as does Esquire’s Stephen Marche, who refers to it as “the masturbation of self-image.” Yet others, coming from a socio-psychological angle, “read serious meaning into the selfie, seeing it as a positive mode of identity formation and an important way of presenting and reinforcing a personal image on the Web’s vast social stage.” (Keller, 2014)

It doesn’t really matter on which side of the digital fence you fancy yourself because the selfie, without a doubt, is huge! For starters, the Oxford Dictionary deemd selfie the word of the year 2013. In addition, more and more research is invested into analyzing the meaning and implication of this phenomenon. For instance, SelfieCity — a remarkable research initiative, led by Lev Manovich, a Professor of Computer Science, and the author of Software Takes Command — established to analyze two important questions: “How can history of photography help to better understand selfies phenomena? How can we approach theoretically social media images in general?” SelfieCitty’s remarkable research, based on examining selfies from 5 world capitols, surprisingly proves that “People take less selfies than often assumed.”


SelfieCity: Research and Analysis


For me, as an individual and a filmmaker, there are three main drives selie production and sharing:

(1)  I Selfie, Therefore I Exist:

In his Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715), Jonathan Richardson writes: “In Picture we never die, never decay, or grow older. Painting has another Advantage over Words, and that is, it Pours Ideas in our Minds, Words only Drop them, The whole Scene opens at one View, whereas the other way lifts up the curtain little by little.” (National Portrait Gallery).

Selfies allow me to document my personal history, and to anchor my view, experience, and even existence in a concrete point in time — compiling a personal narrative. (Baker & Bloustain, 2003)


(2) Immediacy, Creation, & Criticism:

As a filmmaker and visual artist, my interest is in production of visual images. Since I am my own subject — I can be available for myself as all times. Just like a self-portrait, a selfie then is “a way to experiment with pose and technique using a readily available model.” (Self-Portraiture, an Introduction)

And it is immediate! And time, as we all know, is such a precious commodity these days. On the other hand, it also increases the opportunities to exercise critical thinking and evaluation, which is an integral part of all creative process.


(3)A Virtually Social Animal:

Due to personal circumstances, my family and friends are located everywhere, but the U.S. So sharing my life online with people I care about is the optimal solution for me. Moreover, as shown in various researches, taking, publishing, and sharing selfies is a need to connect and belong to community. (Keller, 2014)


Although I am eons away from Dürer, who “is recognised by art historians as being the first artist to regularly paint self-portraits,” the regular practice of documenting my physical self, as well as my mood and experience in multiple points in time, satisfies significant socio-psychological and artistic needs.


And what about you? Do you selfie too?




Keller, J. K. (2014, April 7). What do your selfies say about you? | Al Jazeera

America. What do your selfies say about you? | Al Jazeera America. Retrieved June 17, 2014, from http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/4/7/selfie-psychologydata.html


Self image: making a self-portrait (3) | National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved June 17, 2014, from



Baker, S., & Bloustien, G. (2003). On Not Talking to Strangers: Researching the

Micro Worlds of Girls through Visual Auto-ethnographic Practices. Academia.edu. Retrieved June 17, 2014, from http://www.academia.edu/200148/On_Not_Talking_to_Strangers_Researching_the_Micro_Worlds_of_Girls_through_Visual_Auto-ethnographic_Practices


 Self-Portreture — An Introduction. (n.d.). The Learning Hub. Retrieved June 17, 2014,

from http://blogs.yis.ac.jp/visualart/files/2013/09/self-portraiture-_-an-introduction-_-2012-w7iyhg.pdf



Kids These Days

Kids can be so cool.  Their imaginations are so huge and uninhibited, and they can create amazing things.  Which is why it is so great to put digital media in the hands of today’s youth and just watch them fly.

In Oakland, California a program called “Digital Underground Storytelling for Youth”, or just DUSTY, young people have the opportunity to pair their wild imaginations with cameras, audio equipment, editing software, and experts to give them guidance. The program is working to close the digital divide, by providing access to the latest in digital technology (Hull, 2003, p.230).

Don’t be so cynical as to think this is an after school club for kids who want to play video games.  The point of DUSTY is to get the youth to start thinking of how they view themselves, their neighborhoods, and the stories that exist around them (Hull, 2003, p.230).  The results are 3-5 minute long pieces that include video, photography, music, and a narration recorded by the artist.

Hull argues that in a world where “images push words off the page and our lives become increasingly mediated by a popular visual center”, these kinds of programs keep kids focused on their linguistics (2003, p. 230).

It is also helping kids take control of their own lives.  Hull uses the example of Randy, one of the participants at DUSTY, who created a piece that began with images that included the pyramids, Malcolm X, and Biggie Smalls.  He explained that  he wanted to associate himself with all of those objects or people.  Hull argues that this project, more so than just writing an essay or a piece of poetry, gives Randy and youth like him a “powerful authorial agency” (2003, p. 231).

Programs like DUSTY can be empowering for the youth they serve, but are also an important model for how technology can be used to educate and facilitate positive growth.  Despite some educators and experts strongly opposing the use of screens in education, the reality is that teaching and technology have officially merged, and educational media are making their way into more homes across America.  In a study done by the Joan Ganz Cooner Center, it was revealed that 2/3 of children ages 2-10 have e-readers, and children spend an average of 42 minutes watching educational television (Rideout, 2014).

As long as we are a society obsessed, we may as well use the technology we have to bring positive change to the lives of underprivileged youth.


Hull, Glynda. (2003). Youth Culture and Digital Media: New Literacies for New Times. Reseach in the Teaching of English, 38, 229-240.

Rideout, Victoria. (Jan 2014). Learning at Home: Families Educational Media Use in America. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center.  Retrieved June 16, 2014, from http://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/.