Does This Facebook Analysis Tool Really Know You?

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Today, there's no shortage of oddball Internet start-ups claiming to know how people read, socialize, and shop online. It's the new holy grail in advertising: If a marketer can understand your personality to the point where it can tailor ads to your specific needs, interests, and desires, digital commerce will be forever changed. Facebook already does this to the best of its ability.

But, how much usable data can those companies actually glean from your online life?

A California-based start-up called Five has launched a tool called Five Labs that claims to analyze your personality type by combing through your Facebook posts. The New York Times described it today: "[Five] analyzes the language in which we write, and determines our relative affiliation to five personality attributes: openness, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. It then shows comparisons with famous people (based on their public writings and statements), as well as your Facebook friends."

How could it not? I'm just like Bill Gates, you say? Oh, stop.

In order to arrive at this analysis, you enter your own or someone else's Facebook profile URL, and are soon presented with a pentagonal graph of personality traits. Here, for example, is our very own Leila Brillson's:

leilafivePhoto: Courtesy of Five.
There is some science behind these numbers, based on the research of Hansen Andrew Schwartz, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and an advisor to Five. The tool he's helped develop scours your Facebook posts for words aligned with each of the "big five" personality attributes, as depicted in these word clouds. The phrase "sick of" indicates a more neurotic personality, while "music" and "universe" suggest openness. Unsurprisingly, "fucking" is an indicator of less conscientious and less agreeable personalities.

But, what, exactly, do these percentages mean? It's not a pie chart, because the figures don't add up. "Those numbers are (effectively) percentiles," Five's cofounder Nikita Bier explained to me via email. Five employed a "large" sample of college students and people using Facebook ads to establish a baseline for these scores. That means that Leila's "24% Agreeableness" score, for example, is a comparison to other Facebook users, not an indication that's she's 76% disagreeable.

The good news, though, is that Five won't be handing over your personality charts to marketers anytime soon. "We don't have any plans to sell the data," says Bier. "It's purely educational."

Try Five Labs for yourself here. (The New York Times)