Books written by Ray Sullivan

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Just Like Facebook to Know You

We've all done personality tests - Belbin, Myres-Briggs, SDI - and probably think we know where they are right and what they get plumb wrong.  In fact, administered correctly, any reputable personality test should be correct - we provide all the answers after all - but they will only be correct about one specific facet of our personality.  Belbin is how we work in teams and will determine if we are shapers or completer finishers.  Myers Briggs will determine if we're an introvert or an extrovert, whether we can sense things or whether we have innate intuition.  Use SDI and you'll learn about your personality rewarding zones and where it goes under pressure.

Put them all together and you get a pretty full picture of a person.  More importantly, given a person's reaction or choice over a specific situation and you can often read a whole lot more into them than the single act might suggest.  For example, take toilet rolls.  They can be hung with the toilet paper hanging over the end or into the wall.  Trust me, this isn't random.  Some people deliberately hang their toilet roll so that it hangs away from the wall, weirdos hang theirs the other way.  This is a fact; if you visit a house where the toilet roll hangs against the wall, then at least one person in that house is borderline certifiable.  Be careful who you allow between the kitchen knives and yourself while in that house.

Researchers at Cambridge University have carried out a large scale study involving 58,000 volunteers into how they interact with Facebook, specifically the 'Like' button.  Regular readers may recall that I'm a little wary of the trend for using the 'Like' button as I'm aware that images and postings that accumulate large numbers of 'Likes' are being hawked because the original photo or posting can be altered to promote a product once the 'Likes' hit a significant number.

But, as usual, I digress.

The researchers have monitored the items that the 58,000 volunteers have 'Liked' and built some algorithms to dissect and dice them.  They also subjected the volunteers to a battery of standard personality tests as well as categorising them by gender, age, sexual orientation, belief - all the usual nonsense.  In the analysis the researchers were able to identify, with a high degree of accuracy, the political bias, religious beliefs, sexuality and even propensity to indulge in substance abuse from the items they 'Liked'.  In many of the cases the subjects 'Liked' weren't obvious indicators of these categories.

The upshot is that when you 'Like' a photo, a product, a joke you may be telling someone a lot more about yourself than you realise.  Privacy campaigners are up in arms about the results as it's realised that the information you have already left lying around Facebook could be harvested and used to target you in a marketing campaign or, perhaps in a more sinister mood, just target you as a person based on the perception of your politics, religion,  or other facet.  Modifying your privacy settings may help keep some away from your data, but I guess Facebook always has access to it, so a big responsibility rests on their shoulders.

After all, they could advise, even sell a list of people worldwide who may be susceptible to a specific sales approach. Or perhaps identify all the potentially swingable voters on the run up to an election.  I don't know if they would, but it makes you shudder when you think about it.

But, before we ban them from all analysis of the 'Like' button, do you think we could get them to identify all the households likely to have the toilet roll wrapped the wrong way?  Let's out the weirdos while we've got the chance.


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