Jennifer Golbeck: The curly fry conundrum: Why social media “likes” say more than you might think
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Jennifer Golbeck: The curly fry conundrum: Why social media “likes” say more than you might think


If you remember that first decade of the web, it was really a static place. You could go online, you could look at pages, and they were put up either by organizations who had teams to do it or by individuals who were really tech-savvy for the time. And with the rise of social media and social networks in the early 2000s, the web was completely changed to a place where now the vast majority of content we interact with is put up by average users, either in YouTube videos or blog posts or product reviews or social media postings. And it’s also become a much more interactive place, where people are interacting with others, they’re commenting, they’re sharing, they’re not just reading. So Facebook is not the only place you can do this, but it’s the biggest, and it serves to illustrate the numbers. Facebook has 1.2 billion users per month. So half the Earth’s Internet population is using Facebook. They are a site, along with others, that has allowed people to create an online persona with very little technical skill, and people responded by putting huge amounts of personal data online. So the result is that we have behavioral, preference, demographic data for hundreds of millions of people, which is unprecedented in history. And as a computer scientist,
what this means is that I’ve been able to build models that can predict all sorts of hidden attributes for all of you that you don’t even know you’re sharing information about. As scientists, we use that to help the way people interact online, but there’s less altruistic applications, and there’s a problem in that users don’t really understand these techniques and how they work, and even if they did, they don’t
have a lot of control over it. So what I want to talk to you about today is some of these things that we’re able to do, and then give us some ideas
of how we might go forward to move some control back into the hands of users. So this is Target, the company. I didn’t just put that logo on this poor, pregnant woman’s belly. You may have seen this anecdote that was printed in Forbes magazine where Target sent a flyer to this 15-year-old girl with advertisements and coupons for baby bottles and diapers and cribs two weeks before she told her parents that she was pregnant. Yeah, the dad was really upset. He said, “How did Target figure out that this high school girl was pregnant before she told her parents?” It turns out that they have the purchase history for hundreds of thousands of customers and they compute what they
call a pregnancy score, which is not just whether or
not a woman’s pregnant, but what her due date is. And they compute that not by looking at the obvious things, like, she’s buying a crib or baby clothes, but things like, she bought more vitamins than she normally had, or she bought a handbag that’s big enough to hold diapers. And by themselves, those purchases don’t seem like they might reveal a lot, but it’s a pattern of behavior that, when you take it in the context
of thousands of other people, starts to actually reveal some insights. So that’s the kind of thing that we do when we’re predicting stuff
about you on social media. We’re looking for little
patterns of behavior that, when you detect them among millions of people, lets us find out all kinds of things. So in my lab and with colleagues, we’ve developed mechanisms where we can quite accurately predict things like your political preference, your personality score, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, intelligence, along with things like how much you trust the people you know and how strong those relationships are. We can do all of this really well. And again, it doesn’t come from what you might think of as obvious information. So my favorite example is from this study that was published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academies. If you Google this, you’ll find it. It’s four pages, easy to read. And they looked at just people’s Facebook likes, so just the things you like on Facebook, and used that to predict all these attributes, along with some other ones. And in their paper they listed the five likes that were most indicative of high intelligence. And among those was liking a page for curly fries. (Laughter) Curly fries are delicious, but liking them does not necessarily mean that you’re smarter than the average person. So how is it that one of the strongest indicators of your intelligence is liking this page when the content is totally irrelevant to the attribute that’s being predicted? And it turns out that we have to look at a whole bunch of underlying theories to see why we’re able to do this. One of them is a sociological
theory called homophily, which basically says people are
friends with people like them. So if you’re smart, you tend to
be friends with smart people, and if you’re young, you tend
to be friends with young people, and this is well established for hundreds of years. We also know a lot about how information spreads through networks. It turns out things like viral videos or Facebook likes or other information spreads in exactly the same way that diseases spread through social networks. So this is something we’ve studied for a long time. We have good models of it. And so you can put those things together and start seeing why things like this happen. So if I were to give you a hypothesis, it would be that a smart guy started this page, or maybe one of the first people who liked it would have scored high on that test. And they liked it, and their friends saw it, and by homophily, we know that
he probably had smart friends, and so it spread to them,
and some of them liked it, and they had smart friends, and so it spread to them, and so it propagated through the network to a host of smart people, so that by the end, the action of liking the curly fries page is indicative of high intelligence, not because of the content, but because the actual action of liking reflects back the common attributes of other people who have done it. So this is pretty complicated stuff, right? It’s a hard thing to sit down and explain to an average user, and even if you do, what can the average user do about it? How do you know that
you’ve liked something that indicates a trait for you that’s totally irrelevant to the
content of what you’ve liked? There’s a lot of power that users don’t have to control how this data is used. And I see that as a real
problem going forward. So I think there’s a couple paths that we want to look at if we want to give users some control over how this data is used, because it’s not always going to be used for their benefit. An example I often give is that, if I ever get bored being a professor, I’m going to go start a company that predicts all of these attributes and things like how well you work in teams and if you’re a drug user, if you’re an alcoholic. We know how to predict all that. And I’m going to sell reports to H.R. companies and big businesses that want to hire you. We totally can do that now. I could start that business tomorrow, and you would have
absolutely no control over me using your data like that. That seems to me to be a problem. So one of the paths we can go down is the policy and law path. And in some respects, I think
that that would be most effective, but the problem is we’d
actually have to do it. Observing our political process in action makes me think it’s highly unlikely that we’re going to get a bunch of representatives to sit down, learn about this, and then enact sweeping changes to intellectual property law in the U.S. so users control their data. We could go the policy route, where social media companies say, you know what? You own your data. You have total control over how it’s used. The problem is that the revenue models for most social media companies rely on sharing or exploiting
users’ data in some way. It’s sometimes said of Facebook that the users aren’t the customer, they’re the product. And so how do you get a company to cede control of their main asset back to the users? It’s possible, but I don’t think it’s something that we’re going to see change quickly. So I think the other path that we can go down that’s
going to be more effective is one of more science. It’s doing science that allowed us to develop all these mechanisms for computing this personal data in the first place. And it’s actually very similar research that we’d have to do if we want to develop mechanisms that can say to a user, “Here’s the risk of that action you just took.” By liking that Facebook page, or by sharing this piece of personal information, you’ve now improved my ability to predict whether or not you’re using drugs or whether or not you get
along well in the workplace. And that, I think, can affect whether or not people want to share something, keep it private, or just keep it offline altogether. We can also look at things like allowing people to encrypt data that they upload, so it’s kind of invisible and worthless to sites like Facebook or third party services that access it, but that select users who the person who posted it want to see it have access to see it. This is all super exciting research from an intellectual perspective, and so scientists are going to be willing to do it. So that gives us an advantage over the law side. One of the problems that people bring up when I talk about this is, they say, you know, if people start
keeping all this data private, all those methods that you’ve been developing to predict their traits are going to fail. And I say, absolutely, and for me, that’s success, because as a scientist, my goal is not to infer information about users, it’s to improve the way people interact online. And sometimes that involves
inferring things about them, but if users don’t want me to use that data, I think they should have the right to do that. I want users to be informed and consenting users of the tools that we develop. And so I think encouraging this kind of science and supporting researchers who want to cede some of that control back to users and away from the social media companies means that going forward, as these tools evolve and advance, means that we’re going to have an educated and empowered user base, and I think all of us can agree that that’s a pretty ideal way to go forward. Thank you. (Applause)

82 thoughts on “Jennifer Golbeck: The curly fry conundrum: Why social media “likes” say more than you might think

  1. A lot of the assertions she makes are pretty baseless and she offers very little evidence.. I have a hard time taking any of her statements seriously. She doesn't explain how or why Facebook "knows" people are intelligent or anything for that matter based on likes, and there isn't any way of knowing if they're correct. There could be and probably is a huge margin of error for the average user and it would only accurately represent active users who stay current on trends.

  2. The way NOT to share  private info is TO USE A LOCAL LANGUAGE, a lingo or a dialect that only a few millions (or even less) are useing. This way the effort of mining your data will be too costly and much less accurate when the described technique is applied to English. Also – Avoied being a herd animal: It's much easier to detect a smart person than to find a wise one.

  3. she just keeps on blabbing about how to bring back the power to us users but did not give us any tips on how to do it. that was frustrating.

  4. the people cant have been that intelligent if they like the first random thing their friend likes. also this woman is silly and needs to get a dress that fits her boobs properly.

  5. Measuring 'intelligence' and being 'smart' this way….clever when companies wanna make bigger and bigger profits. 

  6. Every other comment is talking about curly fries. Someone help me understand a little better… I thought she was saying was that using all the things u do online and creating a book of you shouldn't be the way you should be judged as far as future work hirings or potentially how ur future should be molded? Please help me understand?

  7. A smart guy made a page called 'curly fries'? If he's really that intelligent, that like must also be indicative of shame….

  8. Been saying that for years.
    The users of facebook are no the customers of facebook.
    If you get a great product for free, then the producers dont get their income from you.
    The oranges in the grocery store has no say whether they are sold by the dozen or not, or whether they are on sale or not.

  9. This is why we should all have scripts that randomly like things so that we flood the system with false data.

  10. 8:23 She's talking about the FaceCloak privacy plugin here.  Once installed, put @@ at the start of your facebook message and it will automatically PGP encrypt it.  You then give the encryption keys to your friends, thus only your friends can read those messages.  No-one else can read them, not even facebook.

  11. Just a guess, but maybe smart people liked the picture of Einstein (or look alike) on the box rather than the curly fries themselves?

  12. To quote the video description: 'But did you know that computer wonks once determined that liking a Facebook page about curly fries means you're also intelligent? Really.' Is simply a terrible rephrasing of what the video states, correlation shown here to link due to the types of people on your friends list in now way has any cause or effect. No control over my data? Please, I don't have to share everything I do or would consider liking. People can control all but required data by not giving it >.<

    If I want to upload a photo to Facebook, all I must do to stop companies seeing it is post it as unlisted on imgur and link to it, all my friends can see it just fine, Facebook data companies get no access at all.

    If I want to keep a like or such private, I can't, but I can usually go to the dedicated site and just follow stuff there

    On twitter, I don't even need an account to read through most pages and I'd really like to see what happens if a company try to log my ip address and sell that on for data to use. I could go for all sorts of dynamic ips if I had to.

    Controlling data once its out there is as the video put nearly impossible, but the control is already there, on the submit/post button.

    Automated data that third parties get from you without your consent is of course a whole different story.

  13. I was starting to get worried half way through the video, until she finally got to saying that yes, this is a problem, and let's try to fix it.

  14.    So, does that mean that I am no longer being followed because now I know how the system works and my likes are practically useless for the market, because they are compromised by me?

  15. Why is there so much hate towards her? i thought it was a legitimate speech about a topic revlavent to most people today.

  16. Good Study about our social media behavior. We can't accept whatever she says is true and correct but the approach is laudable.I don't why people are unnecessarily cursing this talk.. 

  17. Bad ideas. Not worth a TED talk. The Target story is a classic case of a random success being promoted as Big Data intelligence. Please ask Target how many such similar women were not pregnant but didn't report receiving useless coupons.

  18. jennifer i love you from iran!! great talk very informative! Iranian s are peaceful people! please come and visit us

  19. The level of accuracy for these so-called predictions is low. For instance, many people hit 'like' because of social obligation, not because they really like/want/use certain things that appear on their timeline. Once again, poor correlation social science. They think they know you, but they don't.

  20. The only thing they can predict about my online behavior is that they can't predict anything! Muahahaha!!!

    …How did Google know I have a Canon camera?  Wow, I was really thinking of getting a second speedlite.  Apparently, Amazon has a pretty good price…

  21. We should be prepared to redefine what is considered private in this new media age. Private things might turns out to be things that people don't care about.

  22. So guilt by association? what i'm wondering about is the accuracy of this correlation she didn't give any stats. also i doubt that an intelligent person only has intelligent friends on Facebook, for example my entire graduating class of 80 is friends with every one else and i haven't even spoken to some of them ever. how does that fit in. plus i'd think if she did that it would be pretty easy to skew the results by unliking and liking certain things when your going for a job.

  23. Seriously TED? Now I have to go and un-like curly fries since this video means it's been flooded with all the riffraff.

  24. I really don't want anyone to customize my web response. I already know what I like and how to find it. I don't wanna be in an information bubble confirming what I already know. I want to be surprised. My pattern of behaviour may reflect not my real interests anyway, but just the immediate needs that turned out as web behaviour. A lot of the searches I do are academic and work-related. Why would I necessarily want that regurgitated to me at other times? People may have many limitations to their searches. Web behaviour is not fully representative of the person behind them. I may have to research stuff I don't care for. I don't need the web to play smart for me. I can find what I want. When I don't do that I need something not-related not-kinda-similar, but something that may or may not speak to the rest of me or spark some new train of thought. Inspiration. The youtube feed has turned ridiculous like that. The shit I want, I'll subscribe to or find more of when needed. I don't give a hoot whats popular to some mainstream either, or what some think will be popular with me. I wanna just write some search word and see what really turns up. Unedited and un-behaviorally. Please burst the information bubble, its yesterdays news, this customizing cocoon. Programmers are ridiculous for assuming that what I do is not only what I really want but all I really want. Please – stay off my side guys, open up the search.

  25. I have discontinued my Facebook account, and sent links of this video to family and friends. Identity misrepresentation might cause me to lose a job interview or job, or make people think I am someone I am not. It is as dangerous as identity theft.

    BTW: I have been targeted with Roundup ads when I believe in organic gardening. What are they saying about you?

    This doesn't even consider the principles of someone in the global village making profit from your information. How would you feel if someone in your town was doing this to you?

  26. 0:30 Even in 03/04 I highly doubt many people were on Myspace. People don't think of the early 2000s as that different to now but certainly in Britain people like me didn't have digital TV or broadband for a long time.

  27. Why would you "like" something in the first place? Is there an incentive to "liking" curly fries that I'm missing? Maybe not having a Facebook profile is the strongest indicator of high intelligence after all.
    But maybe someone can explain to me why people feel the need to rub their favourite >everything< in their acquaintances faces.

  28. let them the company's experience them-self how it is to be spammed by commercial on there personal pages for ad least a few months. then they really know how that is like

  29. fries come in many flavors and I do like curly fries but eat more regular fries and I do like a little bit of salt on them.

  30. The key thing to understand here is that all of this raw data is actively being used to shape public opinion to conform to the interests of private wealth & power. One important reason for the very existence of "upvoting" or "likes" is to serve the same function as polling. There's a reason why the US is (and has always been) a heavily polled society (LONG before the introduction of large scale data-mining & online algorithms). It's because the business-class must always have their finger on the "public pulse" in order to properly gauge the effectiveness of the propaganda they're paying for. This enables PR agencies to modify it as-needed when polling indicates that a particular campaign has not been effective at manipulating enough of the target audience. Data from polling assists propagandists in ascertaining when too many people begin to have opinions that do not reflect ruling-class interests, in which case the propaganda can be dialed-up proportionately beat those ideas out of pepole's heads and replace them with corporate-approved ones.

  31. what would happen if the presenter opened an hr consulting company and was able to present datapoints that she describes? Well, it's likely that business will not actually care. At some point the entire population would be put on some virtual spectrum and it might be interesting to compare two candidates for one position but in the end all we will learn is how low we are willing to lower the bar. And then we will also be challenged with the "minority report" syndrome. And then what happens when people game the system? This can only be a fad and quite frankly has a natural bias that can be considered prejudicial. No good will come from this.

  32. This is the woman who is super popular on Twitter for many many videos of her four Golden Retrievers. She posts dozens of Snapchat pictures and videos like every day.

    So…yeah.

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