OPINION7 September 2012

My (not so) private life


Wolfram Alpha now allows Facebook users to dig into their personal data in search of nuggets of insight. Brian Tarran comes up empty-handed. But would market researchers do any better?

I know all this thanks to Facebook – or more accurately, thanks to Wolfram Alpha’s new Personal Analytics app. With the user’s permission, it crunches a heap of information that the site knows about you and produces a fairly detailed report.

But just how insightful is it? Speaking personally, I’m not sure that it told me anything I don’t already know. For instance, I clearly like to talk about my son, Ethan. I check Facebook too much and contribute very little – activity finishes just after midnight each day and resumes at just gone 6am, but I’ve only contributed 429 posts in 18 months, so I’m definitely more of a lurker.

Generally, I access Facebook via iPhone in the mornings and evenings and via the website during the day. Perhaps too often during the day, but that’s just to manage Research’s own Facebook page. Honest.

Most intriguing to me was the mapping of my friend network, showing three distinct clusters of former work and college friends on the left, current work colleagues and acquaintances on the right, and friends and family amassed in the middle. Again, it doesn’t tell me much that I don’t already know about the way my social life is structured – but it looks nice.

Wolfram Alpha founder Stephen Wolfram is a firm believer in the power of personal analytics. “I’ve no doubt that one day pretty much everyone will routinely be doing all sorts of personal analytics on a mountain of data that they collect about themselves,” he says. But to what end?

Behaviour change is an obvious use for this. Maybe I should go to bed earlier, switch off the iPhone more and talk about things other than my son (such as my daughter, the poor neglected thing). Or perhaps I could try selling all my data to market researchers and marketers. The Future Laboratory’s James Kennedy wrote about the personal information economy in December last year, profiling some of the tools that consumers can use to take control over what information companies know about them, but Wolfram’s app takes this to another level.

If any of your Facebook friends are users of the app (only two in my case) you can run a ‘facebook friends’ query in Wolfram Alpha to pull out data they have agreed to share about themselves. Done ethically, this is one possible way for companies to understand more about their customers, though it would require genuine person-to-person contact between company representatives and customers.

But does this data tell companies anything that they would want to know? App usage patterns (as above) might prove useful in determining interests (in my case, music, videogames and taking photos). The mobile versus web use comparison could feed into a wider understanding of technology and media habits. Also, I’m clearly big on sharing links on my Wall – it’s almost a third of my Facebook activity (see below) – so I might be of interest to a viral marketer. However, it does seem that I’m not very influential in my circle of friends. I only get an average of 2.31 likes and 2.52 comments per post, and those figures are probably helped by the lack of frequency with which I post.

In conclusion, then, I can’t imagine anyone paying very much to understand my Facebook activity, which is why I’m giving it away here. But make sure you give the Wolfram Alpha app a go yourself. There’s every possibility you have much more interesting things to share.