Book Review: Datacylsm Who We Are

Dataclysm Paperback Cover

Dataclysm: Who We Are explores how we interact online through data. It’s about who we are, at a macro scale.

Christian Rudder is a co-founder of OKcupid, but he uses data from the online giants – Facebook, Twitter, Google, and yes OKCupid – to share how we behave online. The good, the bad, the ugly.

Flipping through this book, the red data, charts, and graphs stand out immediately. This book is for all the Tufte nerds out there (myself included)!

Dataclysm Example Graphs

Rudder delves into the better sides of ourselves, and the not so pretty sides. Race, politics, love, it’s all exposed here.

“Practically as an accident, digital data can now show us how we fight, how we love, how we age, who we are, and how we’re changing. All we have to do is look: from just a very slight remove, the data reveals how people behave when they think no one is looking.”

As a UX person, this is a great reminder: what people say they do and what they do are two different things. Listening and watching are both crucial skills in user research.

Beyond the career tips, I found myself wondering: would the world be a better off place without the internet? I don’t know. There are things I love about the internet, and things I hate. I think about my privacy sometimes, but I love the convenience of accessing my data from anywhere. I don’t like sharing personal updates or photos online, but I enjoy writing on this blog. It’s a weird paradox.

The internet is embedded in (most of) our lives now for better or for worse, and the data is somewhat unsurprising, depressing, and inspiring at the same time.

Questions Rudder explores:

  • Is the internet making our writing worse?
  • How does racial bias affect getting a job, or a date?
  • Why are women ‘over the hill’ at 21?
  • How and why do ideas spread?
  • What brings us together and what drives us apart?

The “answers” to these questions are complicated, and sometimes surprising.

For example, our writing is not getting worse if you look at word length. The average word length of the top words used on Twitter is longer than average word length of the Oxford English Corpus (OEC). In other words, Twitter users are using longer words than people do overall in the written English language.

I wasn’t surprised to read the chapters about race. The colour of a person’s skin affects daily life (unfortuantely still in 2017). The depth that Rudder shares is how it affects people – everything from jobs they get, the number of dates they go on, and conversations they have.

Although Rudder doesn’t have solutions to problems like racial bias (no one does), half the battle is raising the unconscious bias to the surface. Rudder does that well, and I hope people read this book carefully and think about their own unconscious biases. I did.

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