In all my years watching Blanche, Dorothy, Rose, and Sophia, I never once considered which Golden Girl I resembled. Thankfully, Facebook provided the answer to this dormant, existential question: I’m Blanche. I discovered this self-truth (alter ego?) through one of the social networking site’s popular quizzes. They spread like viruses: a grad school friend took the Golden Girls quiz, broadcasted his result, and like a tempting rerun of the comedy, I paid attention. The quizzes seem to be gaining popularity, which begs the question: why are so many people spending so much time taking these silly, poorly designed, rarely enlightening quizzes? And why must they inform their friends about trivialities, like what font they are?
Sure, these quizzes are a great time waster, another reason to put off dreaded chores, schoolwork, or job obligations. They can be fun. Learning which Muppet you are is likely to summon childhood memories and nostalgia for many a Jim Henson fan, as each embraces their inner-Gonzo. So in that respect, Facebook quizzes serve the same traditional purposes of women’s magazine quizzes: light-hearted escapism, not too invasive introspection, perhaps a colorful revelation to spring at a friend’s party.
The proliferation of Facebook quizzes and their frequent use might suggest some people are just easily bored or distracted, but it could be a sign users have stumbled upon an indulgent opportunity for self-reflection. The lure of any personality quiz is that from a myriad of traits, a singular identity emerges. Never mind that Facebook users are more likely to learn what comic book character they are than whether they might be an introvert or extrovert. True, most quiz takers aren’t getting a psychologically rich, Myers-Briggs-type analysis, but they might gleam a passing insight. Besides, telling your Facebook friends what sexual position you are is much sexier than telling them you’re an ENTJ (Myers-Briggs-speak for extroversion, intuition, thinking, and judging.)
The more powerful allure of personality tests, however, is they reveal what takers already know about themselves. In this sense, Facebook’s quiz masters want to verify, not discover, personality distinctions. On one level, they’re simply seeking self-affirmation: their favorite TV character is probably correlated to their own personality. As social networking sites have gained cultural traction, the pressure to establish an online identity has also increased. So quizzes give users another tool to assert or enhance their web persona.
Some test takers become addicts and exhibitionists, taking quizzes indiscriminately in order to invite more comments about their latest personal revelation. Is this a search for self or merely self-promotion? If Facebook users aren’t satisfied with the thousands of pre-made quizzes at their finger tips, they can even design their own.
The search for an online self or another way to pass time seems harmless enough, but many quizzes pull information from Facebook user profiles in order to work. While it’s not always clear how the information is used by the application, users must consent to the process before taking the quiz, and in most instances pulling profile information appears benign.
Many users, however, express concern that information from Facebook applications could be used for advertising or marketing purposes. Facebook’s privacy officer recently defended profile information that’s shared with third-party sites when users visit outside sites using Facebook Connect. They’re warned their profile information may be shared with the site and must consent to what information is used.
“Facebook users are able to see that they will be sharing data with other sites in a clear and conspicuous manner,” Facebook executive Chris Kelly told BusinessWeek. Still, both Kelly and Digg chief Jay Adelson acknowledged both companies could better target online advertising if they used certain information acquired from Facebook Connect transactions, though neither company expressed any intention to do so.
If privacy was really a chief concern, most users probably wouldn’t take Facebook quizzes and then share the results with their circle. While the quiz taker’s privacy isn’t so bothersome, being flooded with other friends’ daily quiz results often is. In these Twittering times, when no thought goes unexpressed, some people are clearly suffering from Facebook Multiple Personality Test Disorder. If you have this condition, there’s probably a test to decide which treatment is right for you. Just please do your friends a favor. Keep the result to yourself.
Jason Thurlkill is a freelance writer who details political and pop culture trends.