“…few people realize just how much information algorithms can cull from their routine activity on Facebook and Twitter.” So writes Johannes Eichstaedt as he reveals the types of research that’s going on at social media sites. (“Stressed, Angry, at Risk? By Johannes C. Eichstaedt, Scientific American Mind, March/April 2016, pg. 64.) While the studies undertaken thus far have been with the permission of users, there’s nothing to stop employers, insurance companies, politicians, bankers and criminals from doing the same. Forget about the privacy codes, how you express yourself on the web is more revealing than what you write.
In a recent study involving thousands of volunteers, researchers discovered that depressed people didn’t focus on gloomy subjects. Their heavy use of personal pronouns — I, me, mine – was a marker . (Ibid pg. 65) Apparently, the overuse of apparently suggests a person with a neurosis. Frequent use of a word like party is a marker for an extrovert, while an introvert is inclined to overwork the word computer. (Ibid, pg. 66.)
Expressive language, which the algorithms look for, is especially efficient at a site like Twitter where the number of characters is limited. Studies show words like hate, burning, absolutely, passion, bed, tired and exhausted were better predictors of impending heart disease than government statistics working with known cause factors. (Ibid pg. 67.) In the end, writes Eichstaedt, algorithms can reveal more about a person’s traits than his or her friends. (Ibid pg. 66.)
Like every tool of human invention, what we create can be used for good or ill. Ironically, while Apple fights the good fight for personal privacy, you and I are giving away information about ourselves every time we comment on a social network. I’m not talking about revealing small stuff, like letting people know you have a cold or that your cat likes to chew gloves. I’m talking about the unconscious information we give away. As Eichstaedt writes, “..few Facebook users realize that giving access to their status – or even just their “likes”–can supply a corporation with a fairly fine-grained personality profile.” (Ibid pg. 67)