Dataclysm by Christian Rudder

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I’ll be honest – even though Dataclysm sounded super fascinating, when I put it on my November TBR I wasn’t sure I’d actually get to it. I mean, I was putting a lot of non-fiction on my list this month and this has teeny tiny print, and it’s about data, so it didn’t seem likely that it would keep my engaged enough to actually finished.

WRONG.

So Dataclysm is about how people behave online when they think no one is watching. If we know that people are likely to see our answers (in dating profiles or in our Facebook timelines), we answer one way. But when we think our responses will be hidden from people we know or may want to know in the future, we may answer completely differently. It’s also about a bunch of other data research that can pinpoint things more accurately than ever – a more true percentage of the gay population, the geographical impacts of natural disasters as they happen, word usage and the evolution of language, etc. There is SO much information to take in, but it’s all fascinating.

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Page flags galore!

Christian Rudder is one of the founders of OkCupid, and therefore has access to SO MUCH data. He doesn’t rely solely on this data – he makes use of other dating website’s data to compare trends, and he uses data from Google pretty frequently. Dataclysm is unique is that it’s not based on any sort of surveys or questionnaires – it’s a look at data that already exists, thanks to websites saving your answers to every little questions, your search history, your Facebook network, etc. The early chapters are heavily focused on relationships – for instance, the age range of women that men SAY they would like to date, versus the average age of the women they message. Most interesting is anytime the data touched on race – how open-minded people said they were, versus what their actual behavior online shows. Rudder uses Google Trends to plot the search of the “N” word of the course of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign (big shocker – there was a huge jump on the night of the election). There’s just so much to explore. Reading all of this can be interesting and horrifying, but the charts that Rudder includes often visually bring his point home.

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Ooo baby, look at all that data chart-y goodness.

I really appreciated that Rudder usually makes notes of what data he’s using, what controls he’s used, and his process for how he’s getting to these numbers. He also has a good thirty-page batch of notes and citations at the end, for anyone who wants to look closer into his work. While the idea of data is still kind of scary – businesses and the government have access to it all – this book left me a bit more hopeful. I’ve always liked data (it’s why I log my own reading habits), seeing the ways in which passive data can shine a light on heavily debated or taboo subjects was really exciting. I’d love for Rudder to publish a book with just a bunch of pretty data charts of every topic he could think of. I’d gobble that up in a heartbeat.

And now, a couple quotes – mainly for my own benefit, because I have to remove the page flags and return this lovely book to the library and even though I own it on my Kindle, it’s just not the same, you know?

“There used to be two ways to figure out what a person really thinks. One, you caught her in an unguarded moment. You snooped around, you provoked, you constructed some pretext in a laboratory, you did whatever you could to get your subject to forget she was being watched. […] on a large scale, it was impossible. So for data en masse, you had only option two: to ask a question and hope for an honest answer. That’s been the popular standard since Gallup formed the American Institute of Public Opinion in 1935. […] And often the ugliest, most divisive, attitudes remain behind a veil of ego and cultural norms that is almost impossible to draw back, at least through direct questioning. It’s a social scientist’s curse – what you most want to get at is exactly what your subjects are most eager to hide.”

“The era of data is here; we are now recorded. That, like all change, is frightening, but between the gunmetal gray of the government and the hot pink of product offers we just can’t refuse, there is an open and ungarish way. To use data to know yet not manipulate, to explore but not to pry, to protect but not to smother, to see yet never expose, and above all, to repay that priceless gift we bequeath to the world when we share our lives so that other lives might be better…”

Sarah Says: 4.5 stars 

 

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6 comments

  1. I agree that this book sounds fascinating. It’s the sort of book I would want to read a précis of instead of the whole thing, as I usually need some form of narrative to hold my attention for a book-length work.

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  2. This does sound really cool. I think it was OKCupid or maybe another dating website that had a regular blog that discussed stuff like this, at least from their own data. And yeah, the age-range of women that men are interested in messaging, from what I recall, is really depressing. Especially as a single woman in her thirties.

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    1. It might have been this guy that had a blog? But maybe not. But the dating website is kind of sad – men say they’re open to women of a broad range, and then consistently only message women in their 20’s, or an average of several years younger than themselves.

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