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Robert MacMillan's Random Access

Test Your Personality, Digitally

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, April 18, 2005; 10:15 AM

In a recent Random Access, I referenced a study that concluded you can tell a lot about someone's personality by analyzing the playlists on his or her iPod. Not long after that, I found myself standing at a red light in midtown Manhattan noticing that nearly everyone around me had white wires winding from their ears into their pockets.

It was then that it occurred to me that the study was right. I was looking at little white devices that held the key to what makes these people click. And that is where the iPod goes beyond cool and into profound. It's a less accurate -- but more interesting -- tool for psychological analysis -- a Myers-Briggs for the digital age.

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The study, conducted by the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Palo Alto Research Center, is by no means exhaustive in its pursuit of accuracy. As CNET's News.com noted, it's "more anthropological than representative. The researchers interviewed 13 people at an unnamed office about their use of iTunes and their perceptions of other people based on playlist-reading."

The workers were taking part in an increasingly common exercise -- using space on the company's computer network to share music. (Try looking at some of the parts of your computer network shared by the whole office. You might be surprised by what you find.)

"Along with the culling of items in personal playlists, the researchers detailed the way that people browsed and judged other people's collections," News.com reported. "In general, people reported that music libraries didn't dramatically change their perception of their co-workers--except for one or two people who seemed a little too attached to the most current pop hits."

News.com said that the phenomenon of "playlist anxiety" is not new, noting that college students experienced similar feelings when Apple Computer started letting them stream music from other people's hard drives onto their networks.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that some people are taking this a step further: "Experts say these playlists and digital music libraries may even become a new way for people to size up potential mates or political candidates. 'We do find that people are able to make fairly accurate assessments solely on the basis of a person's top 10 songs,'' said Jason Rentfrow, a psychology consultant who co-authored a 2003 University of Texas study of more than 3,500 people that showed musical taste can provide a road map to a person's personality."

The Chronicle pointed out that people have shared music throughout history, but the iPod is different because people can present their entire collection on a digital music player, giving others the opportunity to derive their first impression of you all at once rather than a little bit at a time.

One real-world example of this that didn't go over so well came from the Boston Globe's Christopher Muther, who failed to win friends and influence people with his 15 minutes of iPod fame. Muther visited the Common Ground Bar and Grill in Boston where music fans can play amateur DJ every Wednesday. They hook up their iPod or MP3 player into the club's sound system and let 'em rip.

"To me, it was an ideal musical casserole, blending tracks from obscure 1960s divas (Helen Shapiro's 'I Don't Care') with 1970s pop chestnuts (Neil Diamond's 'Kentucky Woman') and topped with just a pinch of hipster credibility (the Postal Service's 'We Will Become Silhouettes'). Once the general public heard my range, I figured it was only a matter of time before I was plucked from obscurity to become a superstar New York DJ and soundtrack coordinator for 'The O.C.'" he wrote. "When [DJ Sarah] Korval switched the music from my iPod back to her own, and began playing the Kinks' 'All Day and All Night,' someone sitting behind me said: 'Finally! Some real music.'"

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