Can Curly Fries Predict the Future?

Culture & Identity  •  News

Jen Golbeck
Jen Golbeck

By Brendan Wolfe

In talks she gives around the country, Jen Golbeck marvels, and even cringes a little, at what it means for so much of our lives to be lived on social media. A computer scientist, Golbeck introduces her audiences to what she calls the Curly Fry Conundrum. To wit: At some point, someone created a Facebook page dedicated to curly fries—a kind of spicy, helical french fry—and scientists have since determined that a correlation exists between “liking” that particular page and high intelligence.

So does this mean that smart people generally like deep-fried potatoes? Or maybe they just like stuff you can find at Arby’s. Do the less intelligent like waffle fries? What about people who crave sweet potato fries?

Golbeck, who directs the Social Intelligence Lab at the University of Maryland, will be the 2016 plenary speaker at edUI, a conference for web professionals serving colleges, universities, libraries, and museums. Organized by VFH, the conference will be held October 24–26 in Charlottesville. Golbeck will speak on October 26.

In a phone interview, she explained that no, this correlation between curly fries and high intelligence actually has nothing to do with curly fries. Instead, it has to do with something called homophily—people are friends with people like them. “Whoever created that curly fries page on Facebook happened to be smart,” Golbeck said. “And his friends are smart. And their friends are smart.”

“Likes” on Facebook are just one kind of dataset that computer scientists can mine to learn more about social media users. In fact, Golbeck said, all of your online behavior—what you like but also what you purchase and search for—can betray everything from your age, gender, and personality to your politics, religion, and sexual orientation. Just in the past few years the science has advanced so much that the data can even predict the future.

“It’s getting really creepy,” Golbeck said. “We can now know things about you that you yourself don’t know because they haven’t happened yet. The science is really powerful.”

For instance, one study focused on Twitter users who announced that they had begun attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. By studying those users’ tweets along with the tweets of those they followed and those who followed them, scientists could predict with 95 percent accuracy whether the users would remain sober for ninety days. Another Twitter study predicted with 80 percent accuracy whether new mothers on Twitter would experience post-partum depression.

“I’m still kind of shocked at how well the science can predict behavior,” Golbeck said. “The lesson I’ve learned is that it’s more powerful than I would have thought. It has become really hard to hide.”

Watch Jen Golbeck’s Ted Talk

About Jen Golbeck

Jen Golbeck is Director of the Social Intelligence Lab and an Associate Professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Her research focuses on analyzing and computing with social media. This includes predicting information about people, and using the results to design and build systems that improve the way people interact with information online.

She began studying social media from the moment it emerged on the web a decade ago, and is a pioneer in the field of social data analytics, discovering people’s hidden attributes from their online behavior, and a leader in creating human-friendly security and privacy systems.

Jen is presenting the closing keynote at VFH’s edUi 2016 conference, The Curly Fry Conundrum.