Shaped by Social Media and Likes? – with Dr. David Stillwell. Part II

Last week we began the interview with Dr. David Stillwell who specializes in several important aspects of social media. This week we have the concluding part for you.

How Much  Actually Are You Shaped by Social Media and Likes?

Discover with Youth Time Magazine and with Dr. Davis Stillwell about how much influence of social media and likes has on you and your behavior.

What are the differences in communication depending upon gender?

On this page you can see the words used on social media that are most predictive of being a man, and those most predictive of being a woman – feel free to copy the word clouds if you want. WWBP were our partners on the paper.

I would love to have been the person to discover that our stereotypes of men and women are wrong, but the data shows some of them are accurate. Women are more likely to use the word “shopping” and men are more likely to talk about their “xbox”, “ps3”, and use swear words.

One of your research papers talks about using social media to find the right partner. Please tell us more about this.

David Stillwell
David Stillwell / Photo: From the Archive of Dr. Stillwell

There are lots of old wives’ tales about what makes a good partner – do opposites attract or do birds of a feather stick together? Research finds that people tend to marry someone who has similar values, education level, income level, intelligence, and age. But surprisingly there is very mixed evidence for whether people marry those whose personality is similar to their own.

We did our own research using social media data and found that when we used their Likes to predict their personality, people did tend to date people whose personality was similar to themselves.

So the question is: why didn’t past research find this out already? We believe it was because past research uses self-report questionnaires.

When you fill in a questionnaire that asks a question like “do you like parties?” you automatically think of the people you know and compare yourself to them.

If you like parties more than most people you know, you say ‘agree’ and if you like parties less than most people you know, you say ‘disagree.’ And the person you know best is the person you’ve married.

So if your partner loves parties and you only like them, then you may end up choosing ‘disagree’ to the party question, because compared to your partner you’re not very extroverted.

But in the general population, you might both be extroverted.

Likes on social media
Likes on social media

So self-report questionnaires lead people to exaggerate the differences between them and those they know best.

That might be why past research didn’t find an effect of personality, but our research using objective personality (based on what people do on social media) found that people do date and marry those similar to themselves.


How do you target advertising based on social media and an individual’s profile? How does it work?

Social media companies allow an advertiser to show adverts to users who like or talk about certain topics. Given that our research shows that you can predict someone’s personality based on their likes, you can target ads at a certain group and expect them to have a certain personality.

For example, our data shows that people who like the book or TV show
American Gods have a personality that likes to try new experiences and ideas.

So if a company is selling a very new product, they could target people who like American Gods even if the product is nothing to do with the book or TV show.


Does this vary across cultures?

However, a lot of culture is now international.

The link between personality and Likes is slightly different between cultures, and some Likes are specific to certain countries. However, a lot of culture is now international.

Coca Cola is the same in every country, as is Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. So actually it’s not as different as people think.


How do you see the world 5 years from now? And how do you see it 10 years from now?

There’s a proverb that I really love: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

Whether 5 or 10 years, I hope that humanity gets more ambitious for achieving long-term goals. People say that individuals spend too long on social media meeting their short-term desires, but I think society is even worse.

The politicians and CEOs are incentivised to think barely 4 years in the future but all of our biggest challenges are long-term ones.

Child and old man holding green plant in hands
How much are you shaped by social media and likes?

Climate is of course the biggest one – governments have argued endlessly about making tweaks to society but they need to be much more ambitious if we are to avoid degrading our climate further. Inequality is another huge challenge, and technologies like AI will only make it worse as less educated people’s labour is done by machines. Health is another – the COVID-19 pandemic has brought home how little we really understand about the biology of the human body and how to keep it healthy. The virologists’ work making a vaccine is heroic but in the end they still have to do trial-and-error studies to see if it works or not because we don’t understand enough.

There’s a proverb that I really love: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” I hope that in 5-10 years we’re planting lots of figurative and real trees!

Can you tell us about your self-motivation and those who stirred the desire in you towards your current fields of study and goals?

I guess I’m motivated by curiosity. I ended up studying psychology at university because I read a book on game theory that my older brother had brought home for his own degree and left around the house.

Game theory is a branch of economics that tries to explain how humans make strategic decisions that affect both others and themselves. As economists frequently do, it explained the whole of human behaviour in a few beautifully simple assumptions that can be expressed mathematically.

Of course, it was also all wrong, because humans are too complex to be explained that way. So I studied psychology because I thought that it’d be useful to understand people better.

Now I work with big data to understand people because the more data you have the more complexity you can measure and model.

This probably goes along with my curiosity but I’m also quite obsessive. I get interested in something and I pursue it further than most people would say is good for you. There’s another quote I like, from Beethoven:

“Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets.” Whatever you’re interested in, I encourage you to pursue it deeply.


What do you do outside of work? What interests you?

I watch too many TV shows. I was the type of person who watched all episodes of a show from start to finish even before Netflix made it the default option. I also like cycling and Cambridge is a good place for that because there’s nowhere to park, so everyone cycles and we have safety in numbers.


Our readers are mainly the youth from different parts of the world who look up to achievers such as yourself for inspiration. A word of advice for them?

I never really had a strategy for my life. I’m not one of those people who always knew what they wanted to do when they get older. But opportunities came my way when I did things I was interested in at the time.

For example, lots of my social media research comes from a dataset collected from an app I created during my summer holiday between my undergraduate degree and my masters degree.

It wasn’t created with the purpose of being useful for research, I just did it because it was fun and interesting.

But then it took off, millions of people used it, and I eventually realised it was an opportunity to do research.

So if you’re one of those people that doesn’t have a 5-year plan: keep your eyes open, see what comes your way, and pivot to the big opportunities when you see them.

Photos: From the Archive of Dr. Stillwell; Shutterstock



Read also Part I of the interview with Dr. David Stillwell about social media and likes:

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