Friday, March 22, 2013

We reveal ourselves on Facebook

A year-and-a-half ago, I pointed out that there is no such thing as a free lunch on Facebook with this cartoon.

It's time to revisit that theme as new research has come out that Your Facebook Likes Reveal Everything.  Follow over the fold for the video from Discovery News and more on this topic from NBC News and CNN.

Every time you like something on Facebook, you are sending data about yourself out into the internet world. Now, researchers and advertisers alike are using this data to predict more specific things about you. Laci Green reports on the good and the bad implications of this data mining.
Alan Boyle of NBC News takes a more serious look at the report in Gay? Conservative? High IQ? Your Facebook 'likes' can reveal traits
When you click a "like" button on Facebook, you could be telling the world whether you're gay or straight, liberal or conservative, intelligent or not so much — even if you don't intend to. That's what researchers found when they ran tens of thousands of Facebook profiles and questionnaires through a computer algorithm to find the obvious as well as not-so-obvious connections.

The results were published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and you can sample the method for yourself at a website called

"The main message of the paper is that whether they like it or not, people do communicate their individual traits in their online behavior," said lead author Michal Kosinski, operations director at the University of Cambridge's Psychometrics Center.
Here's how the YouAreWhatYouLike reports its finding if you use the app on Facebook.

People familiar with the Big Five personality traits should recognize these terms as synonyms for Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism, so this is a personality test. It doesn't give answers to the rest of the traits described in either the Discovery News video or the rest of the NBC News article, for which the Facebook information is actually more reliable.

My results showed that I was liberal (duh), well organized, reserved, trusting, and calm. About the only one of those findings that surprised me was the reserved one. I generally test out as mildly extraverted on Myers-Briggs, so being labeled as the equivalent of introverted was inconsistent with that. Then I looked at the list of most reliable liked pages for each trait and discovered why. The pages for reserved included RPGs, Anime, Manga, Role Playing Games, and Video Games. I may not like all the pages with those exact names (although I like the suggestions for those pages), but I do like pages about all those topics, so I can see why my results came out that way. Seriously, what these pages tell me is that I am a geek, but not all geeks are reserved.

Speaking of pages that I like that are diagnostic, the one that struck me immediately was Coffee Party Movement as a reliable indicator of "old." I'll be sure to share that one with my friends in the Coffee Party. They might take some perverse comfort that liking Freedom Works is another sign of age. Heh, we share something with our political adversaries in addition to activism.

Another page that I like that shows my age is Small Business Saturday. Looks like I have do more to convince young people of the value of small local stores over national chains.

On the other hand, the people who make their living figuring out who we are from our online behavior aren't nearly as accurate, as CNN reports in Online advertisers know little about you.

Data company Enliken says data collected by online giants such as Yahoo and Google is often inaccurate.
Looks like the online advertisers should talk to the academics who studied Facebook behavior. Then again, maybe not. Do you want to be better product?


  1. I think my favorite random tidbit from that MSNBC list is that liking Pau Gasol indicates you probably do not use drugs. There's a potential meme somewhere in there, I'm sure...

    1. Thanks for pointing that out. I had a fun time looking all the way down the list to see all the best indicators for all kinds of traits.