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The fabric shot heard ‘round the world, part 2 | Chuck's World


Last updated 3/22/2017 at Noon

Last week I wrote about the two-year anniversary of “the dress,” that blue-and-black striped piece of cloth that rocked the world way back in 2015. It occurred to me that this was a tipping point of sorts, although not at the time.

At the time, I was just mildly curious. I’ve seen plenty of optical illusions, and in fact the simplest explanation for all the fuss is that it was just a washed-out photograph, thus making the colors hard to perceive. There’ve been other, more elaborate neurological theories, but this was never about a dress.

In fact, timing might have been the real engine behind this phenomenon, a trivial matter that should have stayed fairly small, given that it was a family matter, just one small piece of a small wedding taking place on a small island off the western coast of Scotland.

On the day that the picture first began to get traction, two llamas escaped from their handlers and wandered the streets of Phoenix for a few hours, capturing the attention of a good many people who watched live video as if it were a high-speed car chase. It was just a fun moment, no harm likely to be done.

But people were paying attention, or perhaps that’s an explanation, when that striped dress started to show up. Looking back at the chronology, we see an explosion of interest happening, minute by minute. Millions and millions and then maybe add some zeroes; it’s probably impossible to quantify, but it’s safe to say that wherever in the world they have internet, and that would be most of the planet, people were talking about this dumb dress.

The next day, too, actor Leonard Nimoy died, producing the now-routine mass memorials on social media.

The llamas didn’t have anything to do with the dress. Mr. Nimoy’s passing had nothing to do with the llamas. But those wacky animals on the loose caught our attention and the loss of our beloved Mr. Spock kept it, creating a perfect storm of attention. And in the eye of that storm was The Dress, and our world is now different.

We’ve had internet phenomena before. The term “meme,” coined by biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976, has now become common, popping up in increasing numbers and fading away almost as fast as those black-and-blue stripes. We stop talking about and sharing them, but we remember. Does the ice bucket challenge ring a bell?

And I suspect that if I met a complete stranger on the street, and referred to a guy giving a live video interview with the BBC from his home office, you’d know exactly what I was talking about.

These are harmless, aside from wasting time. The wandering llamas were just amusing. Nimoy’s death was sad but not unexpected. The dress was just a dress.

But some people were paying attention, and had been for a while. Back in 2007, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Cambridge created a little app, MyPersonality, that he posted on Facebook. Joined by another student, they hoped that the still fairly small social media platform would yield a few dozen responses from their friends, which might give them some useful data on assessing personality.

But they didn’t know. None of us did, not a decade ago. Eventually millions of strangers took their little test and allowed them access to their Facebook profile and information, and suddenly these two students were in possession of a huge database of personal details combined with online activity.

And they struck gold, if only in the sense that they found something valuable. Gold is small potatoes compared to Big Data.

Data is valuable to scientists, and these two men (Michal Kosinski and David Stillwell) saw their windfall as just that, data to be used in assessing personality traits. Kosinski in particular kept working and refining, until he found that he could look at his data from either direction; that is, based on a person’s “likes” on Facebook, he could determine things like skin color, sex, political affiliation, and much more.

I read about this in an article written by two Swiss journalists, Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, originally published in the Zurich publication Das Magazin. Just doing my job here for the fine people of Snohomish County.

The premise of the article is familiar to anyone who’s ever read a Superman comic. An assistant professor of psychology, whose name was Aleksandr Kogan but we can just think of as Lex Luthor, took advantage of this treasure trove and started a business. The Swiss article could lead a reasonable person to believe that this new business of personality profiling led directly to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

I may not be a reasonable person. The use of data to target voters has been going on for a while now, and it’s not going away. I don’t buy the evil genius aspect of the story, but that doesn’t mean I don’t worry.

Every day, I see dozens of people on Facebook take silly quizzes. Do you want to know what kind of Disney character you are? Sure, someone will give you an answer. You’re probably giving them a whole lot more.

I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade. I like reading posts from friends, seeing pictures, reading funny jokes. There are plenty of things on Facebook to like.

You just might want to keep it to yourself.


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