Thursday, January 15, 2015

Comment: Facebook Knows Best. The Pervasive Influence of Algorithms

Facebook's algorithm just might know you better than your friends and close relatives--better than everybody, really, except your spouse. At least this is the finding of a new study bluntly titled, "Computer-based personality judgments are more accurate than those made by humans."

The word "accurate" is suspect here, but at the very least the study, from researchers at Cambridge and Stanford, reveals that, with enough Likes to generate a model, Facebook predicted a person’s personality better than the person's human companions.

The researchers asked 86,220 Facebook users to complete a 100-question survey to determine their relative levels of openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. These answers were compared to a model that compared Likes to certain personality traits.

Neurotic? Did somebody say neurotic? (Jack Nicholson in The Shining)

As TIME reports:

"Likers of meditation, TED talks and Salvador Dali, for example, tended to score higher on openness, while those who liked reality star Snookie, dancing and partying were more extroverted. On average, people on Facebook had 227 Likes, and this was enough information for the computer to be a better predictor of personality than an average human judge (in other words, a friend), and almost as good as a spouse."

The shallowness of these findings cannot be understated. As TIME notes, people are "notoriously dynamic," and no doubt this Like-generated model offers a mere surface view of "personality."

Yet, the fact that the study was conducted, and that the results display a match between Likes and certain personality traits, reveals an intriguing view of how we interact with technology. More to the point, it reveals the pervasive influence of algorithms. We now deem algorithms worthy of social experimentation. And, fascinatingly, algorithms are now proving to be better at "knowing" us (even if in trivial ways) than actual human beings.

This begs the question: Are we becoming more like computers or are computers becoming more like us?

Likely, neither is true. The simple truth, in our opinion, is that we spend so much time online that our personality cannot help but be influenced by our engagement with social media. In this way, it's natural for our personality to align with our "Likes". And yet, there's a dispiriting flip side to this view: All that time we spend on "social" media comes as a detriment to our real life relationships. As Facebook knows us more, our friends know us less.

At the Organic SEO Blog, however, we're not the types to be dispirited. As algorithms continue to inform, and even guide, our "personalities," it's important to remember that our online experience does not have to determine who we are.

We can, in fact, wrest control of our lives back from our Likes. We can tune out, for example.

We're still trying to figure out how liking Dalí (left, with Man Ray) equates to openness. Frankly, Dalí and his art are pinnacles of 20th-century neuroticism

For those in the SEO world, this type of news simply reinforces a core belief: In order to thrive in the online world, one must understand the evolving nature of algorithms.

For an SEO specialist, this is the day-to-day work of organic search engine optimization. In fact, this study reveals a hard truth about SEO that we've tried to express here on this blog for two years: Without search engine optimization, you will likely miss the very customers you hope to attract.

Why? Quite simply, when you do not apply the principles of SEO you work against the algorithm. Why not work with the algorithm?

Understanding algorithms, a site owner (or personal browser) can use his or her knowledge to his own advantage. In essence, this is what SEO is about: understanding the search engine's algorithms in order to attract people to your brand. A site like Facebook and the SEO specialist share the exact same goal. Both try to connect users with their Likes.

At the Organic SEO Blog we discuss algorithms not only as functions but ideas. 

For a more philosophical view of algorithms, please read: "A Frank Look at Algorithms."

For a more topical view of algorithms, try: "Algorithms Have Consequences."

And, of course, if you'd like to speak directly to an SEO specialist who understands the complexity of algorithms, we suggest calling our sponsor, Alex Stepman, of Stepmans PC: 215-900-9398.