How Facebook ‘likes’ define everything about you

According to a new study, Facebook users who ‘like’ curly fries and thunderstorms are far more intelligent than average. Is your internet persona giving away more than you think?

You can hide your age, lie about your relationship status and leave the ‘religion’ box blank. But if you have ‘liked’ enough pages on Facebook, there is little about your personality and identity that a stranger may not be able to guess.

In a recent study, social scientists gathered user ‘likes’ from 58,000 Facebook profiles, then used the data to determine essential information about each volunteer. Their success was impressive: the researchers’ predictions were 95% correct when it came to race, 85% when it came to politics and 88% when it came to male sexuality.

In some cases, the reasoning is fairly obvious. It is no surprise that gay people are more likely to express their approval for anti-homophobia campaign ‘No H8’, or that plenty of liberals like Barack Obama. But these clear signifiers accounted for less than 5% of predictions; other correlations were far less explicable.

Curly fries or thunderstorms are not usually taken as a sign of intelligence, for instance; but few pages on all of Facebook are more closely linked to high IQ. And for some reason, admitting to ‘being confused after waking up from naps’ suggests strongly that you are a straight man. A fan of Hello Kitty, meanwhile, is likely to be more open but less conscientious and emotionally stable than average.

The researchers say that their study should serve as a warning to every user of social media. However private you try to be, it proves, your posts and preferences may reveal far more than you could possibly suspect. And it is not only curious academics who are watching: companies analyse the exact same information in order to send you personalised ads.

For many people, this is a real concern. But some are also disquieted by the results themselves: are we really so predictable that a superficial collection of ‘likes’ can provide a detailed portrait of our identities?

Like it or not...

Apparently so, say sociologists – and that should not be a surprise. When we identify ourselves with a particular book, singer, colour or product, they say, we are never just expressing an opinion. We are trying to tell the world something about who we are, or who we would like to be.

So all personal tastes and preferences are just a narrow-minded attempt at self-promotion? How cynical, say many people – and how untrue! Nothing is more personal to each individual than what we value: if our opinions are not our own then nothing is. This study does not show that we are predictable, they say, only that Facebook is superficial.

You Decide

  1. Do you mind if companies have access to your basic information on Facebook? If not, what information would you like to keep private?
  2. Do we control our own tastes and interests, or are they determined by external factors like how we have been brought up?

Activities

  1. Write down five things you like or value, and briefly explain what you think your choices say about you.
  2. Make a poster to raise awareness about Facebook privacy, warning of dangers and suggesting ways of protecting information.

Some People Say...

“I can always tell whether I will like someone based on their Facebook profile.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So Facebook knows my age and gender. Who cares?

Analysts are developing increasingly sophisticated algorithms for processing your personal information, and they may be able to tell far more about you than just your vital statistics. And it is not only Facebook that accesses this data: your personal details will also be sold to other companies who use it to send you targeted advertisements. Perhaps that still doesn’t matter to you – but many people find it disturbing.
How can I keep my Facebook truly private?

The only way to protect your privacy completely is to leave! But there are less drastic measures too. Check your privacy settings, limit your ‘likes’ and think about using tools like Disconnect Me to limit companies’ access to your account. Privacyfix.com is another website that can help you control who sees your posts.

Word Watch

Correlations
When two different sets of data are related so that knowing one can help predict the other, they are said to be correlated. Ice cream sales are correlated to heat, for instance, and lung cancer is correlated with smoking. However, it is important to remember that correlation does not always imply causation: the two sets of data may both be affected by a third factor that has not been measured.
IQ
IQ, or intelligence quotient, is the most famous method for measuring intellectual ability. But it has been criticised for awarding some kinds of intelligence above others, and for being biased towards cultures where these kinds of intelligence are valued.
Conscientious and emotionally stable
The ‘Big Five’ traits which psychologists and sociologists often use to measure personality are: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. They are referred to by the acronym ‘OCEAN’.

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