LinkedIn ran social experiments on 20 million users over five years

LinkedIn conducted social experiments on 20 million users over five years  

LinkedIn conducted experiments on more than 20 million users over five years that were supposed to improve how the platform works for members, but may have affected some people’s livelihoods, according to a new study.

In experiments conducted around the world from 2015 to 2019, LinkedIn randomly varied the proportion of weak and strong contacts suggested by its “People You May Know” algorithm — the company’s automated system for recommending new connections to its users. The tests were detailed in a study published this month in the journal Science, involving researchers from LinkedIn, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Harvard Business School.

LinkedIn’s algorithmic experiments may come as a surprise to millions of people because the company did not inform users that the tests were underway.

Experts who study the societal impact of computing have said that conducting long, large-scale experiments on people that could affect their job prospects in ways invisible to them has raised questions about industry transparency and research oversight.

“The findings suggest that some users had better access to job opportunities or a significant difference in access to job opportunities,” said Michael Zimmer, associate professor of computer science and director of the Center for Data, Ethics, and Society at Marquette University.

A study in Science tested an influential theory in sociology called “the power of weak ties,” which states that people are more likely to get jobs and other opportunities through long-distance acquaintances than through close friends.

Researchers analyzed how LinkedIn’s algorithm changes affected users’ job mobility. They found that relatively weak social ties on LinkedIn proved twice as effective at securing employment as stronger social ties.

In a statement, LinkedIn said it “acted consistently” with the company’s user agreement, privacy policy and member settings during the study. The privacy policy notes that LinkedIn uses members’ personal information for research purposes. The statement added that the company used the latest, “non-invasive” social science techniques to answer important research questions “without any experimentation on members”.

The goal of the research was to “help people in a big way,” said Karthik Rajkumar, an applied research scientist at LinkedIn who co-authored the study. “No one was disadvantaged in finding work.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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