In a moment of life imitating online life (wait, what's the difference again?) moments before I sat down to write this, a friend of mine on Facebook wrote the following as her status update: "I'm finding it a little disturbing that Facebook knows what I am looking up on Google and other sites not associated to FB. For example, hotels. FB knows the exact hotels I'm looking at on Google and other sites as it comes up on the right hand side of my news feed. It's kind of weird." Of course various people said she could erase her cookies and I suggested she could go into "incognito" mode while looking at Facebook (I'm not sure about all browsers, but I use Chrome, and it's an easy click to change modes).
But yeah, it's creepy that Facebook seems to know more about you that you'd like (it may even predict if you'll get divorced) — but can it possibly know you better than your friends do?
New research says yes. A study by scientists at the University of Cambridge and Stanford University looked at people's Facebook likes and compared them to the same group's answers on personality tests as well as tests done about them by their friends. With enough likes (about 300 was all that was needed), the computer program was a better predictor of people's personality than their friends or relatives were. (However, spouses knew the people best, even better than the program — phew!)
“We know people are pretty good at predicting people’s personality traits, because it’s such an important thing in all of our interactions,” Wu Youyou, a PhD student in the Psychometrics Center at the University of Cambridge, told Time. “But we were surprised by how computers were able to do better than most friends by using just a single kind of digital data such as Facebook likes.” One of the reasons computers do such a good job at predictions is that they are unbiased and can base predictions of very large sets of data — people are more limited in the number of people they know well and also tend to remember more recent or emotional aspects of their friends or family (and to weigh those impressions more heavily).
And your avatar is spilling the beans, too
Avatars (those little illustrated selves that are used in video games and on some other sites) are another online area where we are likely communicating more than we think. Another study, in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin looked at the "big five" personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Half of those traits (extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism in particular) could accurately be predicted through a person's self-chosen or self-created avatar.
"Our data show that some traits are more easily inferred from avatars than others, avatars can communicate accurate and distinctive information regarding personality, and individuals with certain personality traits create avatars that are more likely to be perceived accurately," the scientists wrote in the study.
It's not so crazy — after all, unlike the faces we are born with, our avatars are something we create (albeit from available options), so it makes sense that they can accurately predict some of who we are, though it's probably not something most avatar-creators are consciously aware of.
If all this sounds disturbing, maybe it's not any more revealing than the way you present yourself in real life; and since "real life" and "online life" have merged, some of these hints about who we are — regardless of the venue — are simply offshoots of being human. It's amazing that we still end up revealing so much about ourselves when we feel so "hidden" behind the screen. Still creeped out? The upshot of us losing some of our privacy online is that in the end, we might learn more about what it means to be human.
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