What workout-tracking apps like Runkeeper and Nike+ do for your daily runs and what web analytics companies like Chartbeat and Parse.ly do for your website the data pros at Wolfram|Alpha have now done for your social life. Consider yourself data-fied.
The computational search engine launched a new Facebook tool last week that delivers data visualizations for just about everything you’ve ever done on the social network. By typing "Facebook report" into the standard Wolfram|Alpha search engine, you’ll find an analysis of your account, including a map of your network, a synopsis of posting activity, and a breakdown of friends by gender, location, and even surname.
It’s the latest example in the emerging trend of personal analytics.
Throughout the last decade, several individuals have data-fied themselves in exceptional ways. Designer Nicolas Felton, for instance, has been creating intricate data visualizations about each year of his life since 2005. In them, details such as how much time he spends with a particular person or how many miles he travels each day come together into a surprisingly clear snapshot of his life. The annual reports caught the attention of publications such as The New York Times and Fast Company, and they have inspired others, such as Jehiah Czebotar and Dan Meyer, to create similar data-geek diaries.
Wolfram|Alpha CEO Stephen Wolfram takes a characteristically mathematical approach to his personal analytics. A synopsis of the data he’s archived that was published as a blog post this March includes a plot showing every email he’s sent since 1989, another containing more than 100 million keystrokes and graphs depicting the probability he’s on the phone, daily steps, and meeting times.
Neither Felton’s nor Wolfram’s approaches to documenting their lives are easily replicable. But both men are also working on bringing personal analytics to the masses. Felton helped create Facebook Timeline, a feature that serves to create a life story visualization for each of Facebook’s 955 million users. Meanwhile, Wolfram’s new tool gives all of those users a way to analyze personal data they create online, regardless of whether they’ve been consciously collecting it.
"I’ve no doubt that one day pretty much everyone will routinely be doing all sorts of personal analytics on a mountain of data that they collect about themselves," writes Wolfram in the blog post.
That mountain of data is already piling up, and with new tools like Wolfram|Alpha’s Facebook report, it’s becoming easier to interpret. The day when a motive for doing so will extend beyond narcissism can’t be far behind. But what will it look like?
Some ideas Wolfram has put forward: search engines that know what you need before you ask for it and automatic computational histories that explain why things happened and then make predictions on what will happen next.
Felton, too, has some ideas.
"Once we’ve made the gathering as easy and detailed as it can be, some interesting things may start to happen," he writes on his website, referring to a tool he co-created called Daytum that helps anyone create instant personal data visualizations.
"I can imagine how counting fireflies over the summer would make a poetic record of the way the summer was spent for an individual, but if 100 or 1,000 people are doing the same thing, does it start to tell an aggregate story that speaks more about global warming or habitat loss?"