Ever since those words were chiseled into the forecourt of the ancient Greek Temple of Apollo, people have been repeating them and advocating for self-knowledge. Socrates famously added that “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Although, he was put to death shortly after saying that. So maybe take his advice with a grain of salt.
Either way, though, knowing yourself is hard. Have you ever had someone ask you a simple question like, “What’s your favorite movie?” or “What foods do you like?” — only to draw a total blank and stammer something like, “Umm, chicken?” I know I have. Self-knowledge can require a ton of hard work and introspection — journaling, meditation, soul-searching, spirit quests. Not everyone has the time for that.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to delve deeply into the very fabric of who you are, don’t worry; Big Tech companies have been quietly doing it for you. According to Forbes, technology giants like Google gather information including “browsing history, video viewing, purchasing, location history, online searches, and more” about their users. Google could easily have more than two gigabytes of data about you — the equivalent of a 1.5-million-page Word document. The companies also crunch this data with powerful algorithms to develop detailed profiles of their users.
Google could easily have more than two gigabytes of data about you — the equivalent of a 1.5-million-page Word document.
Sure, Big Tech is gathering all this data mainly to better target you with ads. But there’s no reason you can’t access all that juicy data and use it to accelerate your quest for self-knowledge. Here are some ways to use Big Tech’s reams of data to quickly learn key insights about yourself.
How well you’re adulting
Adulting is hard. Knowing that you’re an adult can be even harder. A few years ago, I remember walking down the street in Walnut Creek, California. A small child scooted past me and said courteously, “Excuse me, sir.” It suddenly hit me that he saw me as a grown-up and that I had probably become one.
Author Thomas Smith held a livestreamed demo and discussion about this piece. View it here.
If you haven’t had a similar moment of clarity, you can take a simpler route and ask Facebook whether you’re an adult or not. Go to https://www.facebook.com/dyi, a page that allows you to download your Facebook data. You can download everything, but to simplify the process, select “Ads” and “Businesses” and “About You.” Press the “Create File” button. Within a few hours, you’ll get an email with a link to download your data. Download the file and unzip it. Navigate into “about_you,” and open the friend_peer_group.html file.
There, you’ll find Facebook’s verdict as to whether you’re an adult or not. If it reads “Established Adult Life,” then congrats, you’ve made it to adulthood! If it reads “Starting Adult Life” instead, then you still have a ways to go. Facebook doesn’t say exactly how they determine your adulting status, but the description on the page hints that it may be based on the friends you associate with on the platform.
I love that Facebook considers adulting to be binary. There’s no category for “Grown Man Living in Mom’s Basement” or “Established Adult But Still Plays Too Much Fortnite.” You’re either an adult or you’re not. I also wonder whether it’s a one-way street. I’d love to see a notification like, “You just listened to Kid Rock’s ‘Bawitdaba’ for the third time this month. Your Established Adult status has been revoked.”
Facebook considers me to be an Established Adult. I’m married, own a house, and have two kids with a third on the way. So I certainly hope I’m an adult by now. But if you’re wondering about your own adulting status, grab your Facebook data and have a look.
Your favorite foods
Google knows essentially everything about you. But in particular, they know everything about what you eat. Think of how many times you’ve searched for “good Mexican place” in Google Maps around lunchtime, used Google to find and print a dinner recipe, or posted a close-up of a plate of food. From all this data, Google has a great sense for your gastronomic habits.
To see what they know, visit https://adssettings.google.com/authenticated. You’ll get a breakdown of everything Google has learned about you, complete with pretty, colorful icons. Perhaps by design, the page presents an overwhelming amount of information about you. But here we’ll focus on your food preferences.
The good news is that for food-related items, Google recycles the same handful of icons. By looking for the icons, you can find all the entries related to food and dining.
Here they are:
Scroll through your own page, making note of any entries that display these icons. That will give you a good sense of your favorite foods, according to Google.
On my own page, Google got things spot on. It nailed my contrasting interests in both “Fast Food” and “Gourmet & Specialty Foods.” I enjoy weird, specialized food products like date honey, but I also have an abiding love for McDonald’s. My page also notes my penchant for “Desserts” and also my interest in “Coffee & Tea.” Honestly, this one feels more like a necessity than an interest.
One seemingly incongruous entry was “Vegan Foods.” I’m not a vegan. But I do love engineered meats, like Impossible Burgers and even plant-based Reubens. I’d never think of myself as a vegan food aficionado. But when I pause to consider it, I realize that by eating these plant-based foods at least once per week, I actually do have a side interest in veganism (even if I often follow these vegan lunch items with a steak dinner). Well played, Google.
Take a look through your own page, and see if Google’s evaluation of your eating habits is accurate — or if anything is surprising.
Your favorite things
Julie Andrews had some favorite things. Oprah surely has them. And it’s a safe bet that you have them, too. To discover your favorite things, turn to the place where you likely get all of the things: Amazon.
Go to https://www.amazon.com/gp/privacycentral/dsar/preview.html, select “Advertising” from the category dropdown, and press “Submit Request.” Amazon will generate a file with your advertising data. You may receive an email confirming the request. Within a few hours to a few days, you’ll get another email letting you know that your data is ready. Press “Download Data,” and download each Advertising.zip file. Unzip them.
Some may be empty, but keep looking through them until you find one with a file titled Advertising.AmazonAudiences.csv. Open the file in Excel or another spreadsheet program. Again, some of these files may be blank — keep opening them until you find one with data in it. When you find the right one, you’ll see a spreadsheet listing all your favorite things, according to Amazon’s advertising data.
My own file contains 65 entries. Many are general, but I found that the most enlightening — and specific — entries were the ones with three colons. These appeared to break down my interests into a general category (like “Lifestyle”), a specific category (“Video Entertainment”), and a subcategory (“Comedy”). Look for your own three-colon entries, and pay special attention to the last item listed in each entry. These are your hyper-specific favorite things.
My conclusion from my own file? Amazon knows me really well. The company is aware that I like “Rock” music, that I read “Reference” books (I almost exclusively read nonfiction about specific, random topics, like fish or bananas), and that I’m interested in “Parenting & Families” and “Business & Investing.” It even knows that I own a Honda automobile (it’s a minivan — see the Adulting section above).
Honestly, I was hoping that Amazon would detect something surprising in me that’s hidden even to myself — like a secret talent for guitar playing or a penchant for curling. But instead, it just gave me a scarily accurate portrait of who I am as a person based primarily on what I buy. Take a look at your own Amazon data, and see if you share my passion for “Cookbooks, Food & Wine.”
Of course, there’s a lot you can learn about yourself by taking more traditional approaches. You shouldn’t rely solely on Big Tech to guide your quest for self-discovery. But even if you don’t learn something interesting about yourself by reviewing Big Tech’s data troves, it’s still important to understand what these companies think they know about you.
According to Deloitte, as of 2017 only about half of people realized that big companies were building detailed profiles of them. The other half were “surprised or completely unaware of the scale and breadth of the data being gathered.” Don’t let this be you.
It’s okay to struggle with truly knowing yourself. You don’t have to journal or go on a silent retreat if you don’t want to. But Big Tech companies’ data gathering has increasingly significant impacts on our daily lives. Even if you don’t know yourself very well, you should at least know what they know.