The Internet Society: How Our Online Lives Reveal Who We Really Are

9780345812582By Christian Rudder, author of Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) (Crown, September 2014)

My fellow first-years and I were the first incoming class at Harvard to get official email addresses from the school. I remember thinking, what nerd is going to send me an electronic letter? Who wouldn’t just call me? What is this garbage? It was 1993. That fall, I used my roommate’s Mosaic browser to look up guitar tab for a Steve Miller song and then, my curiosity about “The Joker” well satisfied, pretty much forgot about the Internet.

I’ve since reconsidered my relationship to technology (and to music…). In 2003, I started what has become one of the biggest dating sites in the country, OkCupid, and last year I wrote a book about the data my site and others, like Twitter, Facebook, and Google, have collected about our millions of users. But instead of hammering away at the economic potential of data (a potential that’s inarguably very potent), I wanted to explore another side of the Internet. That huffy part of me never really went away—fundamentally, what is this garbage? has followed me for decades. Now I have my answer: I believe the Internet, through data we’ve all given to it, will offer an unprecedented look at what makes humanity work. Dataclysm is the first draft of a new social science.

The “Information Age” isn’t just about the Information coming in. It’s about you, as Information, going out. Anytime you open Facebook, click in Instagram, or fire off a Tweet, you’re offering up a tiny piece of your life to a database. Dataclysm aggregates all those pieces, from all those lives, back into a collective story about attraction, sexuality, race, politics, identity, and perception. In short, it shows what all our information adds up to. How do men and women view beauty differently? How do bisexuals typically describe themselves? How fast can rage explode? It answers all these and more.[1]

But if Dataclysm answers some questions, it’s designed to leave the reader with many more. How does being observed change who I am? How does my behavior contribute to a whole? The more time you spend with social data, the more it can seem to confirm what you already know. But the specificity and transparency that data gives to social phenomena allows us to access and discuss them in a new way. If racism is statistically pervasive and universal—as the book shows—what does that say about affirmative action? What does it say about white privilege? What does it say about the 84% of people who claim to be racially color-blind?

Because the book is built on the data of everyday people, the story it tells is ultimately our story—yours and mine—both the ugly and the hopeful. And it will help everyone to understand the implications of their digital lives, to know what they show the world, each time they open their phone.

[1] The answers: Women prefer men to age alongside them, while men’s preferences never really grow up: statistically, a woman is over the hill at 21. Bisexuals’ self-preferred terms include pansexual and heteroflexible. And one tweeter was called out in front of 60M people in a single day. That’s 2.5M haters/hour.

CHRISTIAN RUDDER is cofounder and president of OkCupid and the author of the popular blog OkTrends. He graduated from Harvard in 1998 with a degree in math and later served as creative director for SparkNotes. He has appeared on NBC’s Dateline and NPR’s All Things Considered and his work has been written about in the New York Times and The New Yorker, among other places. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

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