UPDATE: June 8, 2017, 2:01 p.m. EDT This article has been updated to include a statement by a Facebook spokesperson about its pursuit of patents.
Facebook, in particular, has been known to play fast and loose with its users feelings. Troubling news broke last month that the network’s targeted ads were sometimes designed to prey on teenage users’ perceived insecurities, which isn’t entirely surprising given teens’ tendency to air out their feelings online.
Tech analytics firm CB Insights unearthed a trio of Facebook patents focused on harnessing the emotions of its users published by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The applications are mostly focused on predicting the ways we react to what we see online and how we communicate.
The systems described in the filings aren’t totally insidious and to be clear, there’s also no way to know if the social network has put any of these ideas into practice, especially the two that were most recently published. A Facebook spokesperson reached out to provide some extra insight into its patent strategy following the original publication of this article. “We often seek patents for technology we never implement, and patents should not be taken as an indication of future plans, they said in an emailed statement.
The patents do, however, give us at least some insight about how Facebook is thinking about our feelings and how it wants to harness them to keep us focused on our News Feeds.
The most intrusive of the patent applications describes a system built to read the expression on a user’s face every time they consume a piece of content on the network. The front-facing camera on the computer or smartphone would record users in the background while they browse, saving the images and analyzing how they react to each article, pic, or video.
The network would then push similar content into the News Feed to elicit similar responses so if you smile when you look at a video of a Very Good doggo, your News Feed would be filled with even more adorable canine content. That sounds like a great problem to have but do you really want your camera taking note of your expression every time you scroll?
Another of the patents lets users create next-gen emoji for IRL reactions using their facial expressions, because apparently, according to the language in the filing, tapping the Like button is just too inconvenient.
A device’s camera would be used to capture the user’s facial expression, which would then automatically be translated into an emoji corresponding with the mood to react to posts or be used in messaging. By changing their look or adding gestures, the emoji could change too meaning the system is tracking your feelings again.
The final patent of the of the group doesn’t have a facial recognition focus. In this scenario, the network would monitor users’ messaging patterns to predict their emotions, then add features to the texts to reflect their feelings.
It’s similar to the way you can react to messages from your friends now except the network would automatically tack on the augmented features based on how it thinks you feel. The system would depend on input patterns from how the user taps out the messages, along with the context of the conversation.
The system could even take advantage of data from a smartphone’s sensors to get a handle on how its user feels, based on accelerometer information and other measures.
Facebook might not be using these features yet and again, these particular patents might never come to fruition but the systems they describe clearly signal that in the future, our social media experience likely won’t just be based on what can be gleaned from web search data. The networks themselves could be trained to know us in ways that we might not be ready to accept, redefining our expectations for privacy all in an effort to keep us sharing everything online.
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