Putin, Messi and 500 other male interests: this is how Facebook, “the largest database of human culture” can be exploited | Technology
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The general interests of humans are not usually a mystery. But seeing a global ranking of 500 interests by gender based on internal data from Facebook, the world’s largest social network, makes a certain impression. A number of very theoretically masculine interests include Vladimir Putin, Leo Messi, fishing, programming languages or poker, while more women prefer chocolate, Walt Disney, interior design, tattoos or wine. From there, the variety grows.
The data comes from analyzing more than 45,000 interests that Facebook assigns to its users and separating them according to gender: if in more than 90% of countries an interest dominates a gender, the researchers link it to that gender. If, on the other hand, the gender difference varies and in 30% of countries men prefer it and in another 30% women, they leave it without a specific gender. This is the case with interests such as “fitness”, “world heritage”, “language school” or “blood donation”. Most gender interests are basic: soccer, cars, technology for men; family, beauty, food for women. But there are curious things: men are more interested in Chinese, Russian and New York, and women, Spanish and Mexico City.
This study is just a minor example of a tool that its authors predict will be more successful. “Through their activities on-line Y offline, users reveal their interests, beliefs, and preferences to Facebook,” says Klaus Desmet, professor of economics at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas and one of the co-authors. “With this information, Facebook has inadvertently created the world’s largest database of human culture,” he adds.
In a joint work of the Carlos III University of Madrid, the Max Planck Institute of Berlin and the American university SMU, and entitled Extending the measurement of culture with a sample of two billion humans they aspire to offer a new system for understanding global human culture. “We wanted to make the tool, the hammer. The nails will be hammered in,” says Rubén Cuevas, professor of Engineering at Carlos III University, referring to specific examples such as gender differences. “The objective of the article is not to answer questions, but to provide a tool and highlight the fact that Facebook or Google have data that can be used for this and help make public policies,” he adds.
The method aims to contribute to what until now social scientists basically did with surveys. The best known has traditionally been the World Values Survey, which has served as a control for the researchers of this work. One of the tests they did to see if the method was reliable was to group the countries by cultural proximity in a graph. Reasonably curious things came out: Spain as a couple with Italy, Portugal with Brazil, Mexico with Peru, the United Kingdom closer to Anglo-Saxon countries than to Europe and Puerto Rico closer to Latin America than to the US. Within the countries, the autonomous communities Spanish are much closer to each other according to their interests (and the Canary Islands is the most different) than with other European countries.
It’s one of the things that has most surprised Desmet: “National borders are very important in shaping culture,” he says. “This means that there is something like a national culture, a set of interests that unites us as a nation. There are very few exceptions to this. An exceptional example is Flanders: it is closer to the southern part of the Netherlands than to the French-speaking part of Belgium”, he adds.
According to the researchers, the usual survey method has some flaws: “It is expensive, and that is why it is done only at the national level and not at the sub-national level; it focuses on aspects that social scientists believe are important and does not allow people to express themselves, and it is not complete because it cannot ask everything”, says Desmet. “Facebook and other platforms are similar to ethnographers who discreetly observe human populations over long periods of time, with the difference that it can take a year for the ethnographer to observe a single village, while Facebook observes millions of people continuously,” he adds. .
“This method seeks to increase the dimensions that can be evaluated in culture, which includes musical, culinary, sports tastes, behaviors, clothing,” adds Ángel Cuevas, professor of engineering at the Carlos III University.
The solutions that this new method entails regarding the problems of the surveys seem clear, but the article was sent to more renowned academic journals and in some cases traditional ethnographers rejected this method: “They did not see that these surveys could be done in another way. ”, says Ruben Cuevas.
Desmet believes that Facebook data allows “free of charge” to analyze any human group, not only geographical, but also generational, educational, urban. It also allows the user to define what is more important. And with hardly any limits on the number of interests. In the article, the researchers chose 60,000 interests to measure the culture of geographic groups, including cooking, politics, spirituality, family, sports, cars, poetry, computers and any human domain you can imagine.
These interests must then be chosen and balanced to measure more concrete things. For example, Ángel Cuevas proposes a hypothetical “ecological education index” or, in a study that they have been looking at for some time, which immigrant communities best adapt to their host countries. The problem is that in order to make these measurements, it is necessary to choose suitable variables and control possible biases.
For example, a detail about gender that they have looked at is that in developed countries the differences between genders are greater than the geographical ones: “In developed countries, such as Germany, the gender division tends to be greater than the regional division, while in developing countries, like Kenya, the difference between men and women is smaller than the average difference between their provinces”, explains Desmet.
South Africa, cultural center of the world
They have also observed what would be the hypothetical cultural center of the world, the place that our Noah’s Ark should be if we wanted to save as many cultures as possible: “If the entire world population has to meet in one country and we choose the country that minimizes cultural distance everyone would have to travel, and using data from 225 countries, our analysis reveals that that country would be South Africa. Many people might have thought that the United States or some Western country would be the center. But South Africa is one of the few countries with a sizeable African, European and Asian population,” says Desmet.
One of the questions that hovers over this hypothetical approach is what Facebook says about whether it is going to allow this activity with a tool that is actually used to place ads on the social network. The company has not responded to questions from this newspaper about its hypothetical decision. But Desmet is “convinced” that they will not cause problems, as long as minimum guarantees are met. “For a social scientist, the data collected by these companies is a real gold mine. And it is important to clarify that we only use the frequency of different Facebook interests at the level of population groups and we do not need or use individual data, ”he explains.
Facebook is not the only candidate. All social networks profile their users to personalize ads. But Facebook today has the advantage of size and depth of observation: “Facebook observes the online activity of its users, not only on its own platform, but also on all the websites and applications where it has a presence. It also tracks many of its users’ real-life activities with GPS. That way, if you go for a run every day or go to the bar on the corner of the street, Facebook probably knows about it,” says Desmet.
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