What’s On

#sowhoknew: What does Facebook REALLY know about you?

Cambridge University reckon their new ‘Apply Magic Sauce’ app knows more about you than your family and friends based purely upon aggregating data from your Facebook ‘likes’. The boffins claim that the app can figure out how smart you are and even who you want to sleep with. So, I decided to put it to the test…

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Psychometric scientist Dr David Stillwell says that most personality tests are artificial because people can (and will) lie about themselves. However, Facebook ‘likes’ are things that people have done as part of their real lives which, he claims, makes the tool incredibly accurate. And also “possibly a bit creepy” – his words not mine (but I’m not disagreeing). Doctor Dave goes on to say, “When you compare the ability of a computer to the ability of a friend, or your parents, or colleagues, the computer can predict personality more accurately.”

So how does it work? You simply sign in to the online application, allow permission to link with your Facebook account, click enter et voila. Your profile is then mined for your ‘likes’, compared with those of six million other users and a report is produced which is immediately available to view.

The app estimates your gender, intelligence, political stance, religion, satisfaction with life and your sexual preference. It also has a stab at your level of education and your relationship status. And finally it judges you on the ‘Big Five’ personality traits of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

What the hell, I gave it a go to see how accurate it was. So did it work? Well, first up, the app did manage to figure out that I was male. Just. There is a 60 per cent probability it seems. I’m really not quite sure what to make of that so let’s move on…

In terms of traits, it did reasonably well (or maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my behalf). Apparently I am 54 per cent more ‘competitive’ than most people, 66 per cent more ‘laid back’ versus the rest of the population and 49 per cent ‘smarter’ than the average bear. In fairness, I can live with all that so no dispute from yours truly.

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But then the rest of the results make me seriously question the credibility of any of it. My age? Apparently I’m 26. Yeah, I wish. And it seems I’m single. Hmmm. It’s my 15th wedding anniversary this year but maybe my wife is not telling me something?

So it seems the whole ‘Magic Sauce’ thing is not quite so, err, magic. But according to Dr Stillwell, there is a much bigger point he is trying to make. He claims that Facebook’s algorithms are significantly more powerful than those used in his app because of the wealth of information they can call upon beyond the humble ‘like’.

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Stillwell says he conducted this basic experiment to highlight the whole online privacy debate (click on the link to see my previous post on that very subject) and the fact that huge volumes of data are being collected about us, with commercial predictions being made as a consequence and yet we never get to see what is going on behind the scenes, “We wanted to show people, given this fairly innocuous data, this is the prediction Facebook can make about them. I would like companies working with data to be more transparent, so people can trust the process more.”

So a slightly more serious message behind a fairly frivolous app and one which warrants further research – although possibly with a much better app than ‘Apply Magic Sauce’ next time?

Steve Blakeman

Steve Blakeman is the Global Media Lead - Nestlé at Mindshare. Previously, he was the Managing Director - Global Accounts, OMD Europe. Previously, he was the CEO, Asia Pacific – OMD. Prior to that, he was Global Chief Integration Strategy Officer (Asia Pacific) for IPG Mediabrands (Initiative & Universal McCann). He has also had stints as worked as Managing Partner at Omnicom Media Group owned media agency, PHD where he successfully launched their second office in the UK. He began his career at JWT and has over two decades of experience in advertising, media and marketing communications.