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Book Reviews Dataclysm: What OkCupid’s Christian Rudder knows about me, you and everyone we know

Rudder’s book is great conversation fodder.

Victor G. Jeffreys II

Title
Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking)
Author
Christian Rudder
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
Random House
Pages
272
Price
$29.95
Year
2014

Christian Rudder, a co-founder of the massively successful dating site OkCupid, has for years been collating data provided by the lonely-hearts who mingle there. He drills down into hundreds of millions of OkCupid interactions and spins streams of data into those paragons of contemporary journalism – infographics – in order to make sense of the chaos that is his user-base. What do we actually want to hear from potential lovers? What bands do white people really listen to? And do Asian guys really get ignored? On his OkTrends blog, Rudder shows us, with glaring fidelity, what we really are – in aggregate, at least.

Then, this summer, as Facebook came under attack for "experimenting on users," Rudder "confessed" to his own experiments. For example: OkCupid had purposefully pushed "bad" matches together to test whether its yenta algorithm made a proper difference. "Guess what, everybody," he announced, "if you use the Internet, you're the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That's how websites work."

What upset the general public was the notion that websites were treating them like faceless points of data to be manipulated and maximized. What upset Rudder was that anybody was surprised. Rudder believes that experiments in Big Data can, in fact, buoy us up, make our lives transparent and our cultural commentators wiser. Big Data can help us quantify and understand ourselves. Dataclysm, Rudder's new book on the subject, is a hopeful and exciting journey into the heart of data collection, told by one of the guys inside the machine.

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Dataclysm's subtitle, "who we are when we think no one's looking," may suggest Rudder is playing with a larger data set than he really is. Mostly, the book reports on material from OkCupid. But, then again, 10 million people will use the site this year, so Rudder's poll can hardly be called scarce. Some 87 per cent of the United States is now online, he notes, so digital data miners like himself are increasingly able to report on the larger whole. He does also mine data from Facebook (the richest network in history), which one in three Americans accesses every day. But Rudder acknowledges that, "If you don't have a computer or a smartphone, then you aren't here. I can only acknowledge the problem, work around it, and wait for it to go away." Limited or no, the results on offer make for superb conversation fodder.

Some tidbits you may have figured out on your own: for example, you may not need Rudder's elaborate charts to guess that men are depressingly disinterested in any woman over the age of 23. But other revelations are surprising and could inspire real behavioral change. Apparently, looks matter more online than in real life: "people appear to be heavily preselecting for something that, once they sit down in person, doesn't seem important to them." And, contrary to the politically correct assertions we make about our diverse sexual attractions, we are (as a whole) massively biased toward our own race (with white people always coming in second-place for non-whites).

Perhaps the most infuriating revelation in Rudder's book is the fact men and women both are giving vastly more job opportunities to women they deem attractive (whereas beauty plays almost no role in a man's career trajectory). Rudder wisely notes that since women are being hired for a trait that has nothing to do with the job in question "it is therefore simple probability that women's failure rate, as a whole, will be higher. And, crucially, the criteria are to blame, not the people…. it's a problem the Internet is surely making worse… Your picture is attached to practically everything."

Big Data can reveal the trends that otherwise remain obscured within the infinite rationales we invent for our individual decisions. But Rudder knows that his numbers never amount to a single portrait of a single person. "We focus on the dense clusters, the centers of mass, the data duplicated over and over by the repetition and commonality of our human experience. It's science as pointillism." A beautiful notion.

The problem, of course, is that this fascination with infographics-as-truth can lead to a cultish disregard for the spontaneous individual. Rudder finds that "reduction is inescapable" in our increasingly online world, even though number are "not meant to stand in for any one person." We move from salient signal, to wall of sound. From potent data to "dataclysm." And the vagaries that make us who we are get lost in the shuffle.

Valid or no, the aggregation of the individual already begins to warp our perceptions. Just by living your life online, for example, you'll end up with an "influence score" on the website Klout, which future employers will take into consideration. And so you'll be wise (if saddened) to alter your behavior in order to maximize that score. The movement is away from rich lived experience and toward obsessive grooming of one's personal brand.

Rudder is sensitive to these pitfalls, even though he could have easily become another tech evangelist. His book delivers both insider access and a savvy critique of the very machinery he is employed by. Since he's been in the data mines and has risen above them, Rudder becomes a singular and trustworthy guide.

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Editor's note: Christian Rudder is the author of Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking). Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.

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