In my previous post about Facebook’s experiment with users’ newsfeeds I focused on how the outrage at recent publication of the data perhaps related to the more longstanding relationship that we have to companies as regards our emotions. In this post I want to think a little about why the study doesn’t tell us very much about emotions and how we might transmit, circulate or transfer affective or emotional states.
As regards how we conceptualise emotions and affect, it is notable that the research uses an impoverished account of emotions, specifically as regards its two primary concepts: ‘emotional state’ and ‘emotional contagion’. The paper’s ultimate conclusion is that they have found “the first experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks.” So the concept of contagion is just as important to their work as is the idea of an emotional state itself.
In terms of emotional state the study uses a simple measure of whether the expressed emotional content was ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. They classified statements according to whether they contained ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ words defined by the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count Software. This is a problem because much meaning derived from expressions is indexical and implicated. The (emotional) meaning of something is often irreducibly tied to its context of expression. So, during the week in January 2012 when the experiment on Facebook users took place, people could have decided to share and comment on the Daily Mail’s characteristically superficial report on some findings that 1 in 4 office workers is chronically bored.
Let’s imagine someone makes a status update about the article saying “I’m too bored to even read it!” This could only be understood in context and might actually imply, contrary to the surface meaning, that the person was far from bored and in fact quite interested enough to have created a joke based on the article. Indeed, it being a joke would be impossible to capture through the automated system judging the statements according to positive and negative words. So the affective and emotional dimensions of its construction – which might involve laughter or anger, for instance – might be completely misclassified. The fact is that our emotional expressions are indexical too and they can be complicated, conflicting, ongoing or transient all at the same time. Indeed, the idea of a discrete emotional state, as implied by the article, is a problem. Rarely do we feel a single emotion for any length of time, save for in psychiatric conditions characterised by such persistence. Instead, we have multiple emotional states depending on what’s going on for us at the time. I might be miserable about something I’m reading on Facebook whilst only a moment later find myself laughing at something on the TV in the background, all the while I’m bound up with feelings of stress and boredom from trying to plough through a difficult piece of work. So if we take seriously the way in which emotions are described through situated language and the complexity of their embodied and situated interrelations then there isn’t much hope for the measure of individual ‘emotional states’ as adopted in the paper.
The idea of emotional contagion is similarly problematic and needs critical engagement if we are going to begin to understand how emotions circulate. The article asserts that “Emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading them to experience the same emotions as those around them.” Some of the problems here are to do with the metaphor of ‘contagion’, which implies that we ‘catch’ or are infected by emotions from others and then spread those emotions to others. Other problems are about the assumption that when others behave in a similar way to us, for example by posting ‘negative’ comments on Facebook, that they are “experiencing the same emotions” as those around them.
The term emotional contagion is most famously used by scholars in the first decades of the 1900s to make sense of crowd and collective behaviour. Gustav Le Bon is most regularly attributed the questionable honour of its invention but others including sociologists such as Georg Simmel, Gabriel Tarde and Herbert Blumer have made use of it to examine the emotional behaviours they felt were exhibited in crowds. The concept was appealing to them because it helped to explain why seemingly rational people could be co-opted into irrational behaviour. In this regard, it was particularly the cases of racist, xenophobic, fascist and far-right politics that they hoped to explain away. So the concept has had a politics itself from its first uses in social science. Some of its use today is similarly political, as scholars have sought to understand rioting behaviour, terrorism and contemporary far-right politics through the assumption that emotional contagion is involved in the transition from rational to irrational behaviours in crowd and collective contexts.
However, I think that the term is more of a hindrance than a help if the metaphor stops at its most immediate implications of a 1:many transmission, without critical scrutiny, from body to body. But this simplifies how people respond to the observation of emotions in others, how they feel emotions themselves, how emotions relate to spaces, and of how people are recruited to or resist recruitment to collective affective activity. Indeed, to take just one of these examples, people regularly do resist the emotions that appear to be spreading through a crowd. Take the riots in England in 2011. Plenty of people were ‘recruited’ the emotional behaviours involved in the rioting, but plenty of people nearby the riots were not. What made the difference between the people who were engaged by the spectrum of emotions of the various rioting actions across the country and those who were not?
Drawing on a number of more contemporary theories of affect and emotion, Margaret Wetherell (2012) has argued that:
“any particular instance of the circulation of affect, whether occurring in consulting rooms, parliamentary committees, football stadiums or in the message boards of the Internet, involves understanding a raft of processes: body capacities to re-enact the actions of others; the developmental infrastructure of inter-subjectivity; the power of words; the affective-discursive genres personal and social histories provide which channel communal affect; inter-subjective negotiations; consideration of the cultural and social limits on identification and empathy; and exploration of practices of authorisation, legitimation and resistance, not to mention analyses of the containing institutions, spaces and media circulation.”
It is this vast list of features that is implicated in how emotions and their circulation is situated. Consideration of how emotions might circulate from one person to another or to many others cannot be captured by the classification of emotional states according to ‘negative’ and ‘positive’. And even if emotions could be easily classified in such a way, the finding that a greater percentage of Facebook statements were negative when users were presented with more negative statements would tell us very little about how emotional states circulate through social networks.
We need to situate emotional circulations and not de-socialise the body in order to argue for a virus like process of dumb replication. Indeed, even a little expansion of the contagion metaphor would help show how inadequate to the task the emphasis on 1:many body-to-body transfer is. For a start, people have immune systems and so regularly are able to resist transmission of infections. The immune system is made of various processes that interact in complex ways with each other, with other bodily systems and with other bodies and the environment, so that at any given point in time a person may be more or less susceptible to a particular infective agent than at any other. Repeated exposure to infectious agents often increases this resistance. Our immune systems are individual and change over time, they are inherited and evolved and can be supplemented or compromised by various technological interventions. And so on and so forth.
To understand how emotions are circulated we have to think more broadly about what emotions are and how we can know about them, and do so from within a socialised account of embodied, ongoing, habituated and yet spontaneous, contextual and situated intersubjective life. The concepts of negative/positive emotional states and emotional contagion will not do very much for this line of thinking.