Biography by Algorithm

Fast Company reports on Cornell’s “Timeline Generation” project, which seeks to use Twitter to construct biographies of individual users, based on their 140-character contributions to the river of time. (Yes, that’s how I’m going to put a history spin on a Twitter article.)

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From FastCo:

Although it’s only at an experimental stage–there’s no public-facing tool we can try out–[professor Claire Cardie and computer science PhD Jiwei Li]’s research may hold the key to one day turning data from one’s presence on the social web into a biographical narrative.

“Twitter is amazing for researchers, because it gives us access to publicly available biographical information of any person you happen to know the handle for,” Li continues. “Many people tweet about everything that happens to them–and the shorter 140-character limit forces them to be concise.”

The algorithmic process involves filtering out articles about “public” events — elections, the SuperBowl, breaking news events — to capture more personal moments. The project isn’t coming out of nowhere. Li had already put it into practice on a less obscure set of subjects:

Li started the Timeline Generation project by looking at celebrities–seeing whether he could create an algorithm that could, for instance, keep a Wikipedia page or personal website up to the minute by incorporating new information on a constant basis. Having done this, he realized that looking at non-celebrities may be a better application of the Timeline Generation algorithm, since these are the individuals who prove tricky to research by conventional means.

It also involves digging into the nuance of a given Twitter user’s day-to-day, which comes with privacy concerns that people wouldn’t have if they realized they can’t expect to publish to a wide-open forum and have privacy at once because that’s a god damn oxymoron.

Anyway, just something to think about as it pertains to the future of telling the past. Hey,maybe it would help you remember the details of that cuh-razy night in college. Or, get you fired. TBD!

illustration credit: Shawn Campbell, Creative Commons/flickr