Try Googling This

Try Googling This

OKCupid founder reveals what Internet searches really say about us.

Like it or not, we now live in a world where every Facebook post, Google search, Twitter tweet, and other online interaction is recorded, analyzed, and eventually sold to advertisers who use the “data” for marketing purposes. Besides being useful for commerce, what does all this data collection say about us? That’s the searing question behind Christian Rudder’s book Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking). Founder of the popular online dating site OKCupid, a rock star, and a Harvard math grad, Rudder argues that the insights gleaned from our online adventures are far more telling than the info in any trumped-up opinion survey—and more useful than as just a way to sell us another pair of shoes. That’s because there’s no incentive to lie to your computer screen online when you think no one’s looking over your shoulder. It’s almost like a confessional, this thing we call the Internet. I caught up with Rudder recently to talk about his findings before his Sept. 17 appearance at Impact Hub Oakland.

Paul Kilduff: Of all these things data from social media can tell us, what noncommercial use is the most important?

Christian Rudder: I think first, the stuff is super new. Facebook has been big for maybe five or six years. It’s only existed for 10. Twitter has been big for four or five years. It’s existed for seven. These data sources are basically brand new in the scheme of science. The things that matter to people take time. I mean, a human life is 80 years long. A career is 40 years. Marriage is 40 or 50 years long in some cases. Childhood is 18 years long. The scope of human life is still far beyond the existence of these data sources. So the reason I wrote this book is to point out the potential, not to take any particular result and say, oh, my god, this is going to totally change the way you think about mankind. This all weighs heavily on my mind in the wake of the [recent] Facebook experiments debate that’s kind of on the wane now but was raging — I’m assuming it was out in San Francisco, but certainly here in New York it was. You know they did that experiment testing out the emotional effects of people’s feed on their users. Personally I feel the criticism is kind of disingenuous and in a lot of cases unfair. I was very excited that they were doing research on their users that didn’t have a direct monetary value. It was for science, and I worry that the kind of outcry, which again I think has been pretty misguided, will dampen their enthusiasm for that research, to say the least. That, to me, is a real shame.

PK: What was the point of that experiment?

CR: The point was to see if seeing 20 negative posts will affect your future posts? Are they going to be more negative? Are they going to be more positive? Basically, they’re measuring the effect of the echo chamber. If people around you are negative, does it make you negative? If people around you are positive, does that makes you positive?

PK: You put almost nothing about your personal life on Facebook, is that correct?

CR: I try not to.

PK: Do your friends and family feel you don’t share enough? Do you ever get criticized?

CR: The people closest to me definitely tend more towards my side of things. My wife [posts] even less than I do, honestly. She Instagrams sometimes, which I basically never do. My parents don’t, either. I don’t think it bothers people. It’s not like people close to me know me less. I’m not a fanboy of Facebook or Twitter or any of this stuff, but I do know people who use it to tell the world about what they think; to keep in touch with people that they live far away from; to keep in touch with old friends. I think those are totally valid uses and maybe it’s just part of my personality that those uses aren’t enough for me.

PK: You’re quoted as saying you don’t want to put anything on Facebook that you wouldn’t feel comfortable with Facebook sharing with advertisers, right?

CR: Yeah, sort of. I mean, it’s not like I sit around thinking all day about what I am and I’m not going to put on Facebook. I’m not leading a monklike existence here. But I think that’s a totally good rule of thumb. It always kind of amuses me when people get mad that Facebook shares x, y, and z with advertisers. They say they’re going to do it. That’s how they make money. It’s almost like a physical fact of the world that websites share stuff with advertisers, so I’m not that excited about them knowing things about me.

PK: Do you think there would be any future in a social media site that advertised itself as not sharing any information with advertisers? Some sort of pure site?

CR: I don’t think the value proposition there is going to be enough to draw people away from Facebook. I don’t think people actually really care, or are that surprised, that there’s advertising. They’ve voted with their feet.

PK: Something like that would have to be a user-fee-based model, right?

CR: Yeah, I can 100 percent tell you that no kind of pay-to-join social network in lieu of viewing ads will ever work. It just will never happen. You’d never get the scale for it to be useful to anyone.

PK: According to your research, there are a half-a-million Google searches for “N-word” jokes monthly. Are we still really that racist?

CR: Yeah, and that’s in the U.S. alone, just to be clear.

PK: Is that something Google wants people to know? Do you think that’s embarrassing to them?

CR: No, I wouldn’t say it’s embarrassing. I mean people Google everything. People Google “How to kill your spouse.” for example. The “N word” is by far probably the worst word you could say, but there’s a lot worse things than words. People Google crimes; they Google all kinds of crazy stuff, and that’s the point of my book, that people live their lives through these services. Almost everyone does. Something like 87 percent of the country uses Google, not just the few people in San Francisco or New York or whatever. There’s meaningful, real, almost comprehensive human activity happening through these sites. That’s why I’m excited about the potential. And to the extent that you can uncover something people would never talk about in polite company like the 7 million searches for the “N word” in a year, it’s very important to know that. Knowing whether that number’s going up or down. It’s a pretty good barometer of where people’s heads are at.


For more Kilduff, visit the “Kilduff File Super Fan Page” on Facebook.

Christian Rudder’s Vital Stats

Age: 39

Birthplace: Cleveland, Ohio

Astrological sign: Virgo

Book on nightstand: Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, A Little History of The World, Going Clear.

Twitter account: @christianrudder

Link to Rudder’s Oakland appearance:

Faces of the East Bay