Features & Columns

Algorithm Nation

Researchers confirm social media profiles are a window to our souls and our wallets
Online personality algorithms have all but replaced astrological profiles to shame

You can be perceived as compulsive," it began. Not flattering, I thought, but it's possible. "You are consistent; you enjoy familiar routines. You are motivated to seek out experiences that provide a strong feeling of self-expression."

Typical observations for an astrologer, but these didn't come from a person. I was reading my "hyper-personal" profile, a description of my personality traits and values created solely from what I post online.

Imagine collecting your tweets and Facebook posts and reading them like a stranger would for the first time. What do our online words reveal? A few years ago, not much. But now, researchers and marketers have tailored algorithms to decipher users' personalities from even the most mundane like, comment or share.

These tools are a lot like classic personality tests. But instead of drawing conclusions from a questionnaire, the computer churns out profiles based on what users have written for the cybersphere to see. How we choose words reflects our thoughts, feelings, motivations and behaviors—even categories of words reveal a lot about personality.

The algorithms sift through a user's online activity and place words in different bins. They infer how extroverted or neurotic the user might be. They deduce whether excitement or obedience motivates a person through life. These systems are primitive, but they systematically distill our humanity—and they don't care where the planets were when we were born.

However, these algorithms are hidden from nearly all of us. To understand how people react to this unfamiliar technology, psychology graduate student Jeffrey Warshaw and his colleagues at UC-Santa Cruz, IBM and Google recently tested how volunteers responded to seeing and sharing their hyper-personal profiles. The researchers published their results in advance of the Computer Human Interactions (CHI) 2015 Conference held in April in Seoul, South Korea.

For the study, Warshaw recruited 18 volunteers from a Bay Area business. He gave them access to an iPad app that generated their personality profile using their Facebook posts or tweets. Then he interviewed each person to explore a single question: If you give people full power over their profiles, how will they choose to use or share them?

"Our role," says Warshaw, "was to make [a hyper-personal profile] more understandable, then to see where people would want to share it."

He found that most volunteers felt apprehensive about the technology, but many shared their profiles anyway. In general, people have given up on the idea they can control their own data... continue reading