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June 2008

Snoop: An Investigation into Possessions, Perceptions, Projections and Personalities

SnoopCover Sam Gosling's new book - Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You - blends an engaging and accessible overview of some of the key concepts and research findings in personality psychology and environmental psychology with what amounts to a collection of short detective stories. Snoopology, the art and science of determining "which of your tastes and habits provide particular portals into your personality", attempts to differentiate what our stuff really says about us from what most people might think our stuff says about us.

A snoopologist looks for three basic types of clues to personality - one's "unique pattern of thinking, feeling and behaving that is consistent over time" - in the personal spaces (e.g., bedrooms and bathrooms in the home, and offices or cubicles at work) that we inhabit:

  • identity claims: posters, awards, photos, trinkets and other mementos that make deliberate symbolic statements about how we see ourselves that can be for our benefit (self-directed identity claims) or intended for others (other-directed identity claims)
  • feeling regulators: family photos, keepsakes, music, books and videos that help us manage our emotions and thoughts
  • behavior residue: the physical traces left in the environment by our everyday actions (e.g., objects on our desks, on our floors or in our garbage)

The "big five" personality traits, which I first encountered (and wrote about) in the context of YouJustGetMe, a web site for guessing these traits (and an associated ICWSM 2008 paper on which Sam was co-author), are here enumerated along with well-known icons who exemplify these traits:

  • Openness: Leonardo da Vinci; creative, imaginative, abstract, curious, deep thinkers, inventive and value arts and aesthetic experiences.
  • Conscientiousness: RoboCop; thorough, dependable, reliable, hard-working, task-focused, efficient, good planners.
  • Extraversion: Axel Foley (Beverly Hills Cop); talkative, energetic, enthusiastic, assertive, outgoing, sociable.
  • Agreeableness: Fred Rogers; helpful, selfless, sympathetic, kind, forgiving, trusting, considerate, cooperative.
  • Neuroticism: Woody Allen; anxious, easily ruffled or upset, worried, moody.

In exploring what it really means to know someone, Sam reviews some of the work by Dan McAdams, including McAdams' book, The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self, which describes three levels of intimacy:

  • traits: the "big five" dimensions of personality listed above
  • personal concerns: roles, goals, skills and values
  • identity: the thread that ties the experiences of our past, present and future into one narrative

In discussing these levels of intimacy, Sam notes that Arthur Aron has developed a two-person "sharing game" consisting of a sequence of 36 questions that slowly escalate the level of disclosure between two people, enabling them to progress from the first to the second level of intimacy. Unfortunately, the sharing game does not appear to be available online (though a journal paper describing the system is available for a fee),

The "sharing game" reminds me of OneKeyAway, a dating service that adds some new twists to "lock-and-key" parties, in which women are given locks and men are given keys - both worn on lanyards around their necks - and prizes are awarded to couples who find matching locks and keys, offering incentives to both easily engage and disengage throughout the course of a party. I've written an entire blog post about lock-and-key parties and OneKeyAway; here I'll simply note a few relevant items. OneKeyAway introduces two interesting dimensions: a 64-question online questionnaire, which covers topics such as relationship expectations, emotional responsiveness, personal behaviors and habits, hobbies, sexual orientation and preferences, religion and substance; and a MatchLinC keyfob-like device that encodes those responses and is handed out at an event. Participants can "zap" each other - point their MatchLinCs at each other and press a button (vs. inserting a key in a lock), and a red, amber or green light on the device signals their relative compatibility. Couples can, of course, strike up a conversation whether the devices say they are compatible or incompatible (both of which are potentially interesting conversation topics if they find each other attractive). The real power is in the questionnaire, which primes the participants to delve into topic areas that are more likely to lead to progressive disclosure and increasing levels of intimacy.

I don't know whether music is one of the topics in the OneKeyAway questionnaire, but it does frequently rank among the topics that appears to be most conducive to enabling people to connect with and relate to each other. Summarizing a number of related psychological experiments, Sam observes that

music consistently trumps books, clothing, food, memories and television shows in helping people get to know each other.

Elsewhere in the book, he notes that

Web sites are extraordinarily good places to learn about people - perhaps the best of all places.

BlobAnalysis The book includes a handy table (shown right) to indicate just how well we can really learn about people's personality traits through different channels.

These, in turn, reminded me of some earlier ruminations about music and personality, that were inspired by earlier encounters with the work of Sam and his colleagues, and gives me renewed hope that we'll be able to effectively transmute Strands' early core competencies in music recommendation into broader and deeper recommendations that help people discover and enjoy other people, places and things around them (an explicit part of our mini-manifesto for Strands Labs, Seattle).

The sharing game, OneKeyAway and talking about music preferences can help people move from traits to personal concerns, but to really enable people to know each other at the deeper level of identity, McAdams says we have to set the stage for the telling of a story ... their story: "an inner story of the self that integrates the reconstructed past, perceived present and anticipated future to provide a life with unity, purpose and meaning". This dimension reminds me of my experience in The Mankind Project, where we regularly seek to differentiate data, judgments, feelings and wants. One of the tools we use to do this is careful use of language, or as we like to put it, clear, direct, concise and truthful (CDCT) communication. We often preface our remarks with "the story I make up about X" to help us remember that the judgments we have about people - others and ourselves - typically take the form of narratives we construct based on relatively sparse data, filled in with a multitude of judgments, in our relentless effort to make sense of the world. We also emphasize the use of "I" statements - which is consistent with the findings of James Pennebaker reported in the book that a person's use of first-person pronouns is correlated with honesty (and, interestingly, complex thinking).

Rorschachinkblot Philippehalsmanjumpbook Returning to the topic of making sense of people, Gosling reports that the famous Rorschach ink-blot test, in which people describe what they see in ink-blot patterns, is actually not very helpful in assessing personality. A more helpful test is the Picture Story Exercise (PSE) - or Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) - in which people make up a spontaneous story about a random series of pictures, revealing repressed aspects of their personality, especially their motivations and needs for achievement, affiliation and power. Personality seepage can also be effectively captured and analyzed through body movements such as jumping, walking and dancing. Wryly noting that "we sometimes say more with our hips than with our lips", Sam reports on a study by Karl Grammer, at the Ludwig-Boltzmann Institute for Urban Ethology, in which analysis of videotapes and interviews conducted in nightclubs showed that the tightness of a woman's clothing, the amount of skin it reveals, and the "explosiveness" of her movement on the dance floor are all correlated to estrogen levels (indicating fertility, and thus, attractiveness, evolutionarily speaking).

Of course, physiological components of attractiveness are often combined with - or covered up or compensated by - other, more deceptive, dimensions of the outer layers of appearance and behavior we project. This reminds me of some of Judith Donath's insights into the application of signaling theory to social networks, in which she distinguishes among the relative costs and benefits of handicap signals, index signals and conventional signals, and explores how fashion is largely a manifestation of the latter, relatively inexpensive, type of signal.

Fortunately, however, for those of us who are concerned or obsessed with authenticity, Sam claims that our behavioral residue is difficult to consciously manipulate, and underneath whatever appearances we may try to cultivate, our real personalities persistently try to express themselves. This is corroborated by experimental results from Self-Verification Theory, which suggests that people want to be seen as they really are (or at least as they see themselves), even if that means that "negative" aspects of their personalities are seen.

One of the more controversial chapters in the book addresses the issue of stereotypes. Given that we can only perceive narrow aspects of others' personalities, we naturally tend to fill in the gaps of the stories we make up about them with information based on our perceptions others who we judge similar, based on gender, race, or where they live (e.g., with respect to red states and blue states). Unfortunately, for those of politically correct persuasion, many of these stereotypes do have at least a kernel of truth. For example, women tend to score higher in the Big Five trait of neuroticism than men, i.e., they tend to be more anxious, less even-tempered, less laid-back, more emotional and more easily stressed tan men, and it turns out that, generally speaking, conservatives are "neurologically more resistant to change" and liberals are more extroverted.

MusicStereotypes And music stereotypes turn out to be very helpful in forming correct impressions of people, although not all music genres are created equal, with respect to the personality traits their fans inadvertently reveal. For example, affinity for Contemporary Religious music turns out to be much more revealing about personality, values and alcohol and drug use than a love of Soul music or, more surprisingly to me, Rap.

Another dimension that reveals aspects of our personalities is hoarding. Sam notes that we have "an ingrained instinct to collect stuff" (which may be why Amy Jo Kim includes "collections" as one of the five key elements of what makes online games - and online social networking - so addictive). He shares a definition of hoarding as "the repetitive collection of excessive quantities of poorly usable items of little or no value with failure to discard those items over time". With the caveat that "little or no value" is a rather subjective label, I must admit that I tend to hoard books, academic papers and wines. This, in turn, leads to a discussion of what our workspaces say about us ... but I'm going to hold off saying more about that (for now) ... I've been composing this blog in bits and pieces for over a month now, and I want to wrap it up (and if anyone has actually read this far, you may be thinking the same thing). [In fact, given the change in default formatting that TypePad has instituted in the interim, this blog post didn't even get assigned a usable URL, so I've had to repost it :-(]

However, before closing, I will note that in the "What Counts?" column of the May 2008 issue of Conscious Choice, a few interesting statistics - from a TreeHugger article on "Spring Cleaning: '101 Reasons to Get Rid Of It'" - are listed:

  • 1.4 Million: Americans who suffer from hoarding or clutter.
  • 80: Percentage of things Americans own that they never use.

Unfortunately, it's not clear what proportion of the 1.4 million sufferers are the actual hoarders and how many are family, friends and/or coworkers of the hoarders ... for example, I think my wife suffers much more from my hoarding than I do.

Just to come [nearly] full circle again, the issue starts out with a letter from the editor entitled Fire and Rain, that talks about the way that music influences us,

I can’t help but pay special attention to the songs that randomly pop into my head. ... Music has the magical ability to transport and transform us in ways that impress me on a daily basis.

I've just finished - and plan to write another long blog post about - another fabulous book: This is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, by Daniel Levitin ... in which he talks about how and why some music gets stuck in our heads ... and a variety other aspects of our obsession with music ... and which offers an interesting complement to some of the insights that Sam shares in his book.

Returning to Sam's book, one issue that came up repeatedly (for me) throughout the book was the difference between what our words and actions really say about us, and how others generally interpret what our words and actions say about us. Sam notes a number of scientific experiments that have shown that we often make mistaken assumptions about people. But if most people make the same inferences - however mistaken - about others, won't this have an effect on their interactions with them ... and eventually, on their personalities? As Sam notes in the book:

Attractive people may be treated differently in social interaction, a phenomena that actually leads to differences in how they behave and how they seem themselves.

Theodor Adorno noted a similar phenomena in his 1951 book, Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life (which I read about in a recent Wall Street Journal book review, Capitalism and its Malcontent):

The sound of any woman's voice on the telephone tells us whether the speaker is attractive. It reflects back as self-confidence, natural ease and self-attention all the admiring and desirous glances she has ever received.

So if others' assumptions about us affects their behavior toward us, and their behavior affects our behavior, and our behavior over time affects our personalities, won't others' assumptions - however erroneous - affect our personalities? Do we tend to become more of the people others' see us as? I'm reminded of the lyrics from a Lyle Lovett song: "If I were the man that you wanted, I would not be the man that I am" ... but I digress...

I don't mean to say that personality and social psychology does not yield many interesting interesting insights - indeed, Sam's book is one of the most interesting books I've ever read - I just wonder how much impact these insights will have on society. How much does what our behavior really mean matter, in comparison to how others interpret our behavior (and its residue)? Should we be doing more scientific experiments or conducting more polls? Would we rather be right or happy (or popular)?

Of course, if snoopology catches on, perhaps more of us can be right, happy and popular - about and with each other.


Thingamajiggr II: Attentionality, Surreality and Sexuality

I attended Thingamajiggr, "a party celebrating the innovative Pacific Northwest tech community", last night. The party - organized by Waggle Labs and O'Reilly Radar, and held at the 911 Media Arts Center - was fun, and the presentations preceding the party - by John Medina, Scotto Moore, Dan Savage and others - were very engaging ... as were the presentations preceding the main presentations.

Brady Forrest (O'Reilly Radar) was MC for the event, and he started things off by introducing some of the organizers and sponsors of Thingamajiggr, a few people who plan to run workshops at BarCampSeattle this weekend, and other friends. Adrian MacDonald (911 Media Arts Center and Editor of On Screen Magazine) gave a whirlwind tour of the projects going on at the 911 Media Arts Center [Note to self: see if I can entice my kids to enroll in one or more of their youth programs.]

Thingamajiggr-PeterAndShellyThingamajiggr-PathableBadge Brady then introduced Shelly Farnham (Co-Founder of Waggle Labs, and part-time consultant at Strands Labs Seattle) who gave us an overview of Pathable, a lightweight social networking tool for events where people are matched based on social tagging data that is printed on badges, which was being used at the party (and BarCampSeattle). Thingamajiggr attendees who preregistered could peel off their badge from the wall near the entrance (see left photo, with Shelly and Waggle Labs partner Peter Brown) and place it somewhere on their body - some placement sites offer better viewing than others, of course. The badges include attendees' names, title, affiliation, category, a few self-describing tags and a list of people who are "matches" and "opposites" (based on those tags and perhaps other profile information on the web registration form (see my badge, in the right photo). It's a great idea, but I do admit some nostalgia for the stamped round metal buttons they used last time I was a Pathable participant, at FOO Camp 2007.

We were then treated to a preview of the upcoming Seattle Power Tool Drag Race & Derby by Rusty Oliver and Jeremy Franklin Ross Divide of the HazardFactory. The event involves people reconfiguring power tools - some of which have been augmented with flame spewing attachments - to run on a race track. The videos of past events provide a much more effective sense of the chaotic fun than any words I could use to further describe it.

Book_brain_rules_smJohn Medina, author of Brain Rules, was the first of the headline speakers at the event. After making a wry observation about the brain having evolved to learn in outdoor environments, in near constant motion - and how most lecture halls (such as the one at 911 Media Arts Center), classrooms and office environments are thus antithetical to promoting learning - John focused our attention on what he called the attentional spotlight in the brain, and helped us understand why people don't pay attention to boring things (Rule #4). Demonstrating attention to attentionality, John frequently paused throughout his talk to ask us "Do I still have your attention?" - an unnecessary question, as he is an extremely engaging speaker.

The brain processes meaning before detail, and this meaning has evolved based on how the brain perceives the answers to three sets of questions:

  • Can I eat it? Can it eat me? (tastes and threats)
  • Can I mate with it? Will it mate with me? (sex)
  • Have I seen it before? (pattern matching)

He then went on to claim that the attentional spotlight in the brain (Brodman Area 10) is sequential - it cannot truly multitask (i.e., process tasks in parallel). Although frequent task switching (which many of us call multitasking) appears to be increasingly the norm - for example, he average computer user has 17 windows at any given time (I currently have 25 open, but it's early on a Saturday morning) - it is not very effective, at least as it can be measured with respect to time to completion and error rates on tasks. In experiments comparing task switching to uninterrupted time on task, the time to completion of a task in the task switching condition is twice as long as in the uninterrupted condition, and results in 50% more errors.

Thingamajiggr-JohnMedina Among the implications of these results are the dangers in using mobile phones while driving. John presented a chart - shown on the right - comparing the mean response time (MRT) of people under three conditions: normal, legally drunk (blood alcohol content of 0.08) and talking on a mobile phone (while sober). The chart shows that the MRT for a sober person talking on a mobile phone is considerably longer than for a person who is drunk. This is because when you talk with someone on the phone, you are visualizing them, in the same way as you visualize characters and scenes in a book by Faulkner or Tolkien (for example). Thus, your attentional spotlight is drawn away from your real world activity (e.g., driving) and into an imaginary world ... and this happens whether your mobile phone is in your hands or not (i.e., "hands-free" use of mobile phones). [I imagine that listening to audiobooks while driving would be just as dangerous as, if not more dangerous than, talking on a mobile phone while driving ... so perhaps we'll see some laws prohibiting this combination of activities in the near future.] John noted that talking with someone on a mobile phlone is qualitatively different from talking to someone next to you in the car, because in the latter case your brain does not have to visualize or imagine your conversation partner - they are part of the real world scene. It is also different from listening to music ... except when listening to really good music - what I like to call "goosebump music", but which John referred to even more evocatively as delivering a dopamine lollipop - that has strong personal meaning to (and effect on) you ... so perhaps we'll see prohibitions against listening to meaningful music while driving, too. Personally, I think that the most dangerous driving situation is a parent with small, unruly children in the back seat, so if we really want to make our roads safer, we ought to prohibit that as well ... but I digress (do I still have your attention?).

I'll wrap up this section by noting that in thanking John after his talk, Brady noted that his book was published by Pear Press, which walks the talk of uninterrupted task focus by publishing and promoting only one book per year (!).

Scotto_marquee_89081 Scotto Moore was next up, presenting Intangible Method, A Digital Fairy Tale [Scotto's talk held my attention so effectively that I never even thought to take a photo, so I'll insert an image from his web site.]. The fictional story - created in the summer of 2006, and set in the summer of 2008 - is about a woman, known only as sarah-in-motion, who's everyday activities are captured and posted to the web ... by someone referred to as IntangibleMethod. This starts off with a daily series of YouTube videos on "sarah's walk to work", each of which generates tens of thousands of views and hundreds of comments. The videos eventually move off the street and into her home with a series "sarah around the house". After she is BoingBoinged, she becomes totally immersed in the online postings of and about her, and things start changing for the worse, leading to her losing her job, her house, and eventually prompting a series of darker videos: "sarah sleeps in park", "sarah looks for change", "sarah spots new doorway". The ending brings the plot full circle again, with a provocative note from sarah-in-motion: ""my body was just an avatar. see you in second life." Scotto finished off promoting his upcoming play, Interlaced Falling Star, epic science fiction told on a budget of under $300, showing at the Annex Theatre from July 25 - August 23.

Dan Savage, author of the Savage Love column and blog (or slog), rounded out the evening presentations. Brady didn't remember the exact title of Dan's column during his introduction, and so Dan reminded him (and us) several times during the presentation that he has been writing this column for 17 years (or, as he frequently directed the reminder toward Brady, "longer than you've had pubic hair").

Dan led off by telling us that he sees his job (if not his mission) as "abstinence reprogramming" for college students, trying to undo the damage wrought by $1.2B in federal government funding during the Bush administration for sex education programs that promote ignorance as a virtue and amount to nothing more than "reproductive biology". He likened the way we typically teach sex education in our schools to driver's education that teaches students how a car's internal combustion engine works, rather than informing them about turn signals, traffic signs, how to avoid accidents and other rules of the road.

If John Medina's refrain was "Do I still have your attention?", Dan's refrain was "Any other questions?" After his introductory remarks, he spent the rest of his time in a question and answer session with the audience of about 100 people.

Responding to a question about how the Internet had affected the newspaper column profession, Dan complained that the web, and weblogs in particular, "ruined a sweet deal" for newspaper columnists: he used to get by working for two days, scrambling over the weekend to get the paper out, and then spend three days getting high and watching movies (telling his editors that he was trolling for materials). The news cycle is no longer weekly (as at The Stranger), daily or even hourly, but momently. And with the advent of web 2.0, it's no longer enough to simply write blog entries, with podcasting, everyone has to be a radio station, and with YouTube, everyone has to be a TV station.

However, there have been some advantages. Before the Internet, he was frequently asked for referrals or define terms - both of which are now easily accessible to anyone with a web browser. He also used to receive long, flowery descriptive letters of various genital sores, now he gets digital photos of them in email ... from people who are, ironically, too embarrassed to go see a doctor about treatment. He may turn these photos into a flipbook ... although there have been some drawbacks to these emails, as he related a funny story about a time when one popped up unexpectedly when he was on an airplane flight, and a woman called out ("Oh my god, he's masturbating!").

A somewhat less ambivalent advantage to the Internet is that it promotes his goal of deprogramming ignorance- abstinence-based sex education: as he puts it, "the web is sex education in America" (reminding me of Avenue Q's song, "The Internet is for Porn" ... which further reminds me, the show is playing at The Paramount Theatre right now). Now we just need to carry the message to the streets - Dan suggested putting up advertisements for the Scarlet Teen web site ("sex ed for the real world") on middle school buses.

DanSavageTheKid Interestingly, despite his promotion of openness, he reported that his son has never seen a computer, a copy of The Stranger or the book Dan wrote about adopting him, "The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Get Pregnant", despite the fact that many other kids his age have cable TV in their bedrooms. When people started clapping, he counseled "Don’t be smug Seattle applauders".

Dan also shared a funny story about an interview he conducted with a man who married his horse on his Savage Love Radio. At the end of the interview, he asked, "Are you married to a boy horse or a girl horse?" Drawing himself up rather huffily, the man replied, “I am not a homosexual!” ... even people who practice bestiality have to draw the line somewhere, I guess.

All in all, it was a great set of talks, and although I didn't stay long afterward, many of the people in the audience - seemed just as interesting as those presenting at the front of the room. I'm sad I am missing BarCampSeattle this weekend, as I'm sure many of these people will be leading sessions at the unconference, but I'm glad that I at least got o enjoy a little taste of the local tech community at Thingamajiggr!


New Faces at Strands Labs Seattle

Yogi and I have recently been joined by some wonderful new people at Strands Labs Seattle, and our new office space has some new surfaces that make it increasingly habitable.

SameerAhuja Sameer Ahuja, a graduate student intern from Virginia Tech, arrived May 12, and will be spending the summer with us. Sameer has been working with the Digital Government Research Group under Dr. Manuel A. Pérez-Quiñones and Dr. Andrea Kavanaugh, where they have been researching and developing social software, visualization tools, and content aggregation tools with the purpose of enhancing citizen awareness and promoting greater participation. We are delighted to have him participate in our efforts to research and develop new tools for enhancing awareness and promoting interactions in other contexts.


ShellyFarnham Shelly Farnham, co-founder and Social Architect at Waggle Labs, joined us as a part-time consultant on May 15. Shelly brings a wealth of experience in prototyping, deploying and evaluating social technologies designed to enhance communication, community, social networks, identity, knowledge sharing, and social coordination. Before co-founding Waggle Labs, Shelly was a Researcher with the Social Computing, Community Technologies, and Virtual Worlds Groups at Microsoft Research. She is also an accomplished artist. I've known Shelly - and admired her work - for over 5 years now, and I'm thrilled to have an opportunity to work directly with her.


Frank Kemery, principal at PPM Wireless, LLC, also joined us as a part-time consultant on May 15. Frank brings deep and broad expertise in identifying new market opportunities, strategic planning, business development, alliance building, product planning, development and management in startup and mature environments. Earlier chapters of his career include senior positions at Real Networks, InfoSpace, and Activate (which was acquired by Loudeye (which was acquired by Nokia)). Frank is our point man in addressing one of the principles outlined in our innovation manifesto for Strands Labs Seattle: aligning innovative social technologies with viable business models.

StrandsLabsSeattleSE StrandsLabsSeattleNE StrandsLabsSeattleDeck

In addition to the new people faces, the lab itself also has a new face. The front area, facing University Way, has fresh paint, new carpeting and a new deck overlooking "the Ave". We are still sitting at temporary folding tables, using chairs that will eventually be moved to a conference room, and using 8' x 4' laminated melamine boards propped up against the walls as temporary whiteboards. The main thing, though, is that we have a nice open area with big windows with lots of light ... an increasingly conducive space in which our growing team can effectively collaborate on designing and developing new social technologies that bridge the gap between people - and the places we inhabit - by bridging the gaps between our online life streams and the physical spaces we share with others.

[BTW, speaking of life streams, Strands has a new feed (or lifestream) aggregator in private beta that will likely play a significant role in our projects in Seattle. I'll write more about that once it is publicly available. Meanwhile, as with nearly all major developments in our company, more information can be found on our corporate blog; ReadWriteWeb also has a review ... and a private beta invitation code to give away.]