A company wants you to experiment on Facebook — by quitting


99 Days of Freedom Website.

Reaction to Facebook’s controversial mood manipulation study dominated headlines for a week. Lawmakers called for an investigation. Governments did, too. Consumer groups filed complaints. And of course, users threatened to leave.

Now, a Dutch nonprofit initiative is calling on users to conduct their own Facebook mood experiment by quitting the site for 99 days and taking periodic happiness surveys to see whether they’re better off without it.

The “99 Days of Freedom” initiative was dreamed up by employees at Just B.V., a creative agency in the Netherlands. It started as an office joke.

“Like a lot of Facebook users, many of us were bothered by reports of secret mood experiments,” Just’s art director, Merijn Straathof, said in a press release. “As we discussed it internally, we noted an interesting tendency: To a person, everyone had at least a ‘complicated’ relationship with Facebook. Whether it was being tagged in unflattering photos, getting into arguments with other users or simply regretting time lost through excessive use, there was a surprising degree of negative sentiment. Then someone joked, ‘I guess that the real question is, ‘How do you feel when you don’t use Facebook?’ There was group laughter, followed by, ‘Wait a second. That’s a really good question!”

Just chose 99 days because it thought users would lose interest if the campaign ran longer and it would be hard to measure emotional change if it was shorter. Straathof stressed the goal isn’t to protest Facebook or undermine its business. “Facebook is an incredible platform, we’re all fiercely loyal users and we believe that there’s a lot to love about the service,” he said.

As of early Friday morning, more than 6,000 people had signed up for the campaign, which was announced on Wednesday. That’s barely a drop in Facebook’s billion-user bucket.

Even if the campaign called for leaving Facebook altogether, would it work? Cornell University conducted a survey which it published in 2013 showing a quarter of Facebook users take breaks from the site by deactivating their account, and one in 10 completely quit. The survey was based on responses from 410 people – not exactly representative of Facebook’s much larger user base.

However there were some interesting results. The researchers found that Facebook users who deactivate their account are more likely to know someone else who has also deactivated – perhaps a sign that if enough people get mad at Facebook, a mass exodus could occur.

But mass exodus would mean overcoming the network effect. That would be tough. People might be mad at Facebook, but it’s still the site people use to catch up with friends and family. You can’t just leave it for another site because your friends aren’t on another site – they’re on Facebook. Even if you quit Facebook, you might be using another network it owns like Instagram or What’s App.

But plenty of alternative social networks are out there – some popping up just in time to capitalize on anti-Facebook rage. Sobrr is one such Facebook alternative. In a way, it’s the anti-Facebook. Instead of tracking everything you do, the site erases everything every 24 hours.

Erasing everything is a promise we’ve heard before. Remember Snapchat’s supposed commitment to privacy? Users were told photos and videos sent through the app would disappear within ten seconds, but it turned out they were being saved without users’ knowledge.

 

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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Lindsey Bever | July 11