Wrapping my mind around a “Dataclysm”

I admit it.  I like the Internet, and I really like Facebook.  I enjoy seeing what my friends are up to.  I enjoy the pictures and posts from my favorite Spanish TV show, “Isabel”.  I enjoy posting random observations about my life and/or the world or uploading my pictures and then reading what my friends have to say about them.  And I suppose I’ve known all along that through these activities, Facebook and its advertisers know a lot about me.  But it took reading the book Dataclysm:  Who We Are* (*When We Think No One’s Looking), by Christian Rudder (Crown Publishing Group, 2014) to drive home just how much they know.  And it’s A LOT!   What I learned startled me, though I won’t say it surprised me.  I’ve been around long enough to understand there’s “no such thing as a free lunch”, and that something has to be paying for my “free” use of Facebook.

Math was never my best subject, but in the hands of Christian Rudder data and data analysis turns into something fascinating and compelling.  Through the easiest-to-understand charts I’ve ever seen and a witty, thoughtful narrative, Rudder navigates and explains all the data that our participation in social media provides.  I’m technically not in most of his numbers, since he limits much of his analysis to information gathered from the dating website OKCupid (which he helped to develop, and which my 32 year marriage has happily kept me away from) and specifically users between the ages of 20 and 50.  He also analyzes data from Twitter, which I don’t use at all (I just don’t see the point!), and some sites, like Reddit, that I didn’t even really know existed.  But I look at Facebook every day, and I do use Google quite a bit, as do 87% of Americans, so I’m there.  And if you’re reading this it means you’re online, which means you probably are, too.

The subtitle to this book provides a key to its most compelling insights.  I don’t suppose I was surprised to learn, for example, that while men on a dating site might SAY they’re looking for a woman near to their own age, their online behavior suggests otherwise.  The data indicates that 20 is the age at which women are most attractive to men regardless of the man’s age, so that, according to Rudder, “younger is better, and youngest is best of all, and if ‘over the hill’ means the beginning of a person’s decline, a straight woman is over the hill as soon as she’s old enough to drink”.  Yikes!  This is just one of many examples of Rudder’s revelations, and also of his engaging writing style.  There are surprises like this in every chapter.  As someone who tried to always teach the importance of culture in language learning, I especially enjoyed the chapter entitled “Tall for an Asian”.  Rudder’s charts showing the frequency of words used in self-descriptions by various demographics was nothing short of fascinating.

I try to be VERY careful about what I reveal on any public platform.  Part of that could come from my introverted personality, but part of that comes from a lifetime in education.  In order to survive there, frankly, you learn to keep your head down and be very cognizant of how even the slightest comment might be construed.  I’m constantly amazed, then, by what people will say when they are separated from their audience by an electronic device.  Rudder presents the case of one badly worded Twitter post that resulted in the poster’s firing from her job, and also introduced me to something called a “Klout score”, which measures an individual’s online influence on a scale from 0 to 100.  Some employers, I learned, now even state required “Klout scores” as part of job requirements.  I suppose it’s only a matter of time until that trickles down to being part of teacher evaluations…

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review, and I have to say that I have really enjoyed the wide variety of reading experiences I continue to have as a result of my participation in this program.  Dataclysm is a fascinating read, a book well worth your time.  It is an important contribution to the current dialog about Internet privacy and data collection.  I certainly will never experience Facebook the same after reading it!




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