What Facebook and Wolfram Alpha can tell you about yourself

Wolfram Alpha reveals Facebook habits, friends.

Wolfram Alpha
The author's 'friend cloud.'

Wolfram Alpha may look like Google, but don't be fooled. One is a search engine. The other is something much more strange and powerful.

Google takes your search query and then points you toward websites that probably have the right answer. Wolfram Alpha takes your query and then rolls up its sleeves and tries to answer the question by itself. The website can solve trigonometric functions, list every airplane in the sky above your location, pair complementary colors, lay out music theory, and calculate that there have been four times more episodes of "The Simpsons" than of "Law & Order."

Wolfram Alpha is a warren of powerful tools and fun time-wasters. As the three-year-old website continues its quest to quantify the world, it recently tapped a rich new vein of data: your social life.

Wolfram Alpha can now mine Facebook activity, delivering insights on you, your habits, and your friends.

With your permission, Wolfram Alpha digs into your past. The website finds out which of your Facebook messages drew the most comments, and even which words you use most often. It charts when you play with Facebook applications, possibly revealing patterns you never knew you had.

The results can be fascinating, nostalgia inducing, and sometimes a little creepy.

One of the coolest features is Wolfram Alpha's "friend cloud." It takes all of your Facebook friends and maps out the connections between them. The tool groups mutual friends, guesses how people know each other, and lays out everything like a TV detective's bulletin board of suspects.

For example, in my friend cloud (see chart, above), each dot represents a person. Wolfram Alpha figured out which of my friends I met in college (the red cluster), which are from work (tan), and which share the most friends in common (the larger dots).

You can dig into your own profile by heading to WolframAlpha.com and searching for "Analyze my Facebook data."

Before the site can start number crunching, you will need to give it permission to access your Facebook profile. The tool can also pull up information on your friends – how much information depends on them. Wolfram Alpha can only see what your friends have opted to make public in their Facebook privacy settings.

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