“Emotional contagion” is a wonderfully Early Modern phrase. There is a Puritan ring to it that suggests the zeal of the witch-hunts. So, it is perhaps no coincidence that its most recent use has been in the land of the Pilgrim Fathers, although the context is as modern as it can get: the experimental study of collectively produced emotions on a social networking site. Facebook’s Core Data Science Team has collaborated with two of America’s top universities to show how emotional states can be transferred to others through emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without being aware of this. This might happen without direct interaction and in the “complete absence of non-verbal cues”. Negative emoticons or keywords seen repeatedly in one’s newsfeed can make one sad, and the same for positive mental states. The experiment was conducted by tweaking the newsfeeds of almost 700,000 subjects who did not know that they were being studied.
Quite apart from the comically disturbing implications of the findings (it does not require an exceptionally perverse imagination to think of sheep when trying to imagine unconscious emotional contagion on such a massive scale), the ethics of conducting such mental experiments without the proper awareness of the participants whose emotions are being calibrated have been questioned. Facebook seems to be clear in terms of the legal technicalities, since signing up automatically means giving informed consent to the many uses that personal information can be put to, including ‘research’ of this sort. Yet, what seems to come through when news of such research reaches the public domain is a strange indifference to these ambiguities among most users whose privacy has been compromised. Perhaps there is something much larger than emotional contagion that is beginning to happen in the cyber-universe of these networking sites — a fundamental transformation, at once inward and social, not only of what and how people feel positive or negative emotions, but also of general attitudes to how these feelings are then used by unknown, anonymous parties for their own, predominantly commercial, purposes. This is a shift in the history of emotions (and the ethics of emotions), individual and collective, the dimensions of which cannot be underestimated.