Quick: who’s your oldest friend on Facebook? What’s the most popular photo you’ve ever posted? When are you most likely to be found updating your status?
I actually know the answers to those questions—and a lot of other arcane facts about my life in socialspace—thanks to a new feature on Wolfram Alpha. That’s the ultra-geeky search engine that specializes in providing factual responses to questions rather than directing you to relevant web pages. Wolfram Alpha also happens to be the system that Apple’s Siri taps to answer a plain-English query like “Who’s the Boss?” with the correct answer, “Bruce Springsteen”; Google, meanwhile, assumes you’re talking about a classic Tony Danza sitcom.
Now Wolfram is branching out into fielding questions about us and our friends. It’s rolling out a “Facebook report,” an eight-page analysis of your social-network life compiled by sifting through your account, your postings, your friends and the links that connect you. Complete with graphs and pie charts, it’s as if someone decided to create a corporate annual report dedicated to analyzing the time you spend goofing off on the Internet.
(MORE: Inside Facebook’s World)
So I’m able to tell you that my oldest Facebook friend is a 79-year-old former colleague from my days at The Wall Street Journal. (Don’t worry, friend, I’m not naming names here. Let’s just say he has a Pulitzer and leave it at that.) My most popular photo? It’s a Hipstagram snapshot of a beef tenderloin I grilled back at the start of summer. (It looked delicious, so I can understand how it earned all those “likes.”) And if you want to find me posting on Facebook, your best bet is to check in on Wednesday mornings.
It’s fun, and a bit trivial. But once you get past the gee-whiz aspects—who knew that 81% of my friends are married?—it’s also a more sobering reminder that everything in our personal dossiers grows fatter by the day on the servers at Facebook and other social networks. To say that entities from marketers to the U.S. government know an awful lot about us is nothing new, of course, and it should be fairly obvious that social networks have an omniscient view of how we interact with our online friends. But seeing your Wolfram Alpha report brings that home in a visceral way.
Here’s how it works. Go to Wolfram Alpha and type “Facebook Report” into the search box. You’ll be asked to click on a link that authorizes Facebook to share information with the Wolfram site. After crunching your data for a few moments—it turns out it that combing through your social life takes a distressingly short amount of time–you’ll see your personalized report.
I was most interested in the section that analyzed all the posts I’ve made on Facebook. It turns out that when I write status updates, I use one word more often than any other: “new.” (Maybe not too surprising for someone in the news business.) My average update is 14.49 words long; on average, my posts get 1.32 “likes” each. Something to work on, I suppose.
I also learned a lot about which friends interact with me the most. I hadn’t realized the extent to which Facebook has reconnected me with some of my high-school friends—mostly scattered across the country—until I saw the actual stats. Perhaps not an earth-shaking revelation, but fascinating to me nonetheless.
For anyone feeling distressed by the massive amounts of information being collected about them, that may be the silver lining. As I’ve said, the fact that we’re all being tracked endlessly is hardly news. What is new: the growing opportunities for individuals to tap their personal data for their own use.
Some refer to this phenomenon as “personal analytics,” borrowing language from the term web sites use to describe the deep data crunching they conduct to better understand their visitors and customers. And it’s emerging in all sorts of areas. If you wear a Fitbit, a $100 supercharged pedometer that uploads your data to a web site, you find out how far you walk each day on average, or look back to see how many steps you took or stairs you climbed on any given day. Payoff: a way to analyze your habits and figure out which days in your schedule require more attention to getting enough exercise. Earlier this year, Google launched a feature called Account Activity that gives you statistics about the way you use email. Then there’s Klout, a service that looks at your social-media presence and scores your influence.
In other words, there’s little chance that the gatekeepers of our digital lives will stop compiling minutiae about us. But we can hope for—or insist upon—more chances to look at that data ourselves and hopefully gain some insights. In that sense, Wolfram Alpha’s new Facebook reports are an instructive example. And hey, who wouldn’t want to learn more about how to get their friends’ attention?