Our Online Personality

It’s no secret that potential employers may have a gander at your social media profiles while flipping through your application. I’ve heard dozens of stories about how near-successful candidates were overlooked for jobs because their Facebook profile contained a photo of them drinking from a plastic cup. Online presence is such a big thing now a days. I chatted with a friend in IT this past weekend about how to navigate my own concerns about hire-ability and my desire for self-expression. Her attitude was not to delete my Facebook albums from undergrad, but to make sure they’re only visible to friends. Take control of your public image. It makes sense. I might be comfortable schlepping about the house in a hoodie, yoga pants and flip-flops, but I would never wear that to an interview. It’s all about putting your best self out there.

So, I had mixed reactions to this study about a computer programme able to predict personality based on a person’s Facebook profile. 

The study, released by PNAS, discussed the development of a computer model that can accurately assess an individual’s personality by data-mining their Facebook likes. More importantly, the computer’s prediction of personality was more accurate than assessments made by work colleagues, friends and family members. Only spouses could predict personality as accurately as the computer.

The team used data collected from the Facebook app myPersonality. Participants in the study gave the app access to their Likes and completed a personality test for the “Big 5” traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. (If you’re into this sort of thing, you can do a test here. It’s interesting to see where you fall on the spectrum). The team was then able to correlate Likes with personality traits.

Participants were given the option of inviting friends and family to judge their personality with a shorter questionnaire. These online assessments were compared to the literature on how relatives, friends and colleagues assess personality and the results were similar. The researchers found that with more and more Likes, the computer became better and better at predicting personality than friends and family.

Clicking that little thumbs-up is so effortless. I spent a few moments looking for the myPersonality Facebook page (the app shut down in 2012, in case you’re wondering) and then scrolled through my Facebook news feed. In less than five minutes I had ‘Liked’ five things: an interesting quote, a marker sketch of a whale, a photograph of butterflies getting nutrients from mud,a friend’s photo of her sons on snowmobiles, an article about the relative size of Africa. I responded to these images and articles on an almost subconscious level and that is a reflection of who I am as a person. But, do I want the amalgamation of those Likes and all my Likes going back the last half decade I’ve been on Facebook to be available to strangers. It’s one thing for your spouse to understand your personality. They know you, they care about you, they put up with your crap. But do you want a potential employer knowing who you are as a person without ever having spoken to you?

Openness and Extraversion scores aren’t too damning. If you’re introverted, it’s not a big deal. If you’re extroverted that’s not a big deal either, you just probably go out more. But while someone’s Agreeableness score may reflect how they might work in a team, should their Neuroticism score be given the same consideration? Is that really fair? In a lot of ways, we’re saddled with our personality, and many of us, I’m sure, make an effort to work around our problem spots. But we don’t want our problem spots out in the open, either.

On the one hand, I find it fascinating that personality can be gleaned from data mining and mathematical algorithms. That we are our personality even even on a subconscious level. There’s a kind of beauty to it. On the other hand, I am concerned about the uses of such computer modelling.

If someone asks me to describe my personality, I have no trouble doing that, but I’ll probably skip over the not so fabulous things. So if someone finds out about me behind my back, in a way I can’t control, it’s disconcerting. And maybe that’s why this kind of technology makes me uneasy. Not to get all, “Big Brother’s watching you”, but there are some privacy ramification to this sort of work. The authors of the study admit that, of course. But it’s food for thought.

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