announced this afternoon that it is tracking what it calls its version of Gross National Happiness, based on an analysis of the positive and negative words people use when updating their Facebook status. It's very interesting to see how people feel about various world events that Facebook has cross referenced - US users are more happy on Thanksgiving than on Christmas, for example.Facebook
The new index is interesting, but it's also a frustrating example of just how much value Facebook is withholding by not allowing everyone access to the anonymous, aggregated activity and conversation of more than 300 million people.
Almost a year ago we wrote about how a widely discussed Facebook Sentiment Engine could be a huge asset. That theoretical possibility held at least as much potential as the very real Google data about most popular searches minute-by-minute during the last Presidential debates.
One best-case scenario we imagined looked like this:
Think of the non-commercial, public interest kind of data that could be acquired. When the economic stimulus plan of 2009 was first announced on national television - what was the reaction of people in their mid twenties who lived in the Mid West of the US? Was that collective reaction substantially different from the reaction of self-identified queer people of color living in the North East US? How did the public reaction to the proposed plan change one hour, one day or one week after the announcement? This is all very interesting and potentially valuable data that could be, for the first time in history, available in near real time. Just by listening to what people are talking about in status updates and comments.
Unfortunately, that's not what Facebook has given us. It's almost a year later and all we get is a hands-off graph showing that people were sad when Heath Ledger died and were happy on National Holidays. What a tragic loss of public access to a valuable resource that we ourselves are creating.
If the movement to make social networking a distributed, decentralized phenomenon ends up succeeding and capturing these kinds of benefits of scale - we're going to look back at this point in history and think it's absurd that one company kept so much important knowledge from society at large.