Our habits define us. But how true is this for our digital habits? Are we the same online as offline? In the early days of the internet, it was probably safe to assume that our online behaviours did not reveal much about our real-world personas. This notion was popularised by the “on the internet, nobody knows you’re dog” caption of a famous New Yorker cartoon.
As the internet gained prominence in our lives, we gave up anonymity and also the desire to mask our real identity online. Indeed, online activities are no longer separable from our real lives, but an integral part of it. According to Ofcom, UK adults are now spending over 20 hours a week online: twice as much as 10 years ago. Similar metrics have been reported for the US, with the biggest chunk of online time (around 30%) devoted to social networking.
Like in reality TV shows, it is harder to fake it online when you are being observed for a longer period of time. Conversely, deliberate deception and impression management are relatively straightforward during short-term interactions, such as job interviews, first dates and dinner parties. We all have a window for displaying the bright side of our personality and adhering to social etiquette, but what happens when a great portion of our lives is being broadcasted?
Although we are more than the history of our browser, it is feasible that our web searches and web page visits, emails and social network activity contain traces of our personality. Prior to the digital age, our identity, style and values were mainly revealed by our material possessions, which psychologists described as our extended self. But human inferences were required to translate these signals into a personality profile.
Today, many of our valuable possessions have dematerialised. As Russell W Belk, an eminent consumer psychologist at Canada’s York University, noted: “Our information, communications, photos, videos, music, calculations, messages, written words, and data are now largely invisible and immaterial until we choose to call them forth. They are composed of electronic streams of ones and zeroes that may be stored locally or in some hard-to-imagine cloud.”
Yet in psychological terms there is no difference between the meaning of these dematerialised digital artefacts and our physical possessions – they both help us express important aspects of our identity to others and these identity claims provide the core ingredients of our digital reputation. A great deal of scientific research has highlighted the portability of our analogue selves to the digital world. The common theme of these studies is that, although the internet may have provided an escapism from everyday life, it is mostly mimicking it.
Most notably, our typical patterns of social media activity can be accurately predicted by scores on scientifically valid personality tests. This research is the product of Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre, led by Dr Michal Kosinski (now at Stanford). For instance, studies show that Facebook “likes” reflect how extroverted, intellectual and prudent we are. Mining tweets reveals how extroverted and emotionally stable people are. This can be done by analysing the content of tweets (personality predicts what words you are more likely to use) as well as the number of tweets and followers people have. Twitter can also be used to infer dark side personality characteristics, such as how machiavellian, psychopathic or narcissistic people are.
In addition, studies indicate that our media preferences and online purchases also reflect elements of our personality. Thus computer-generated algorithms may not just predict what you will watch on Netflix, listen to on Spotify, or buy on Amazon – the may also explain why. Our own research has highlighted many associations between personality and both reported and actual artistic and musical preferences. Unsurprisingly, research has also identified a connection between online porn consumption and impulsive/obsessional personality features.
William James, the father of American psychology, once suggested that we have as many personalities as the number of situations we are in. Although our digital identity may be fragmented, it seems clear that our various online personas are all digital breadcrumbs of the same persona; different symptoms of our same core self. We are still far from the development of a Shazam for the soul, but the more we can integrate and synthesise our segregated online data, the more complete our picture of ourselves will be.
Businesses will clearly benefit from leveraging this data and the corresponding algorithms for making sense of it. To the degree that they can overcome ethical and legal barriers – presumably by enabling consumers to opt in in a conscious and transparent way – they will be able to move beyond programmatic marketing tools that predict future behaviours to deeper psychological tools that can explain and understand it. This may not only enable them to personalise and curate products and services more effectively, but also educate individuals about their own personality and perhaps even help them become smarter and happier consumers.
This article originally appeared on The Guardian.