Friday, September 5, 2014
Dataclysm: Who We Are* (When We Think No One's Looking) by Christian Rudder - Review
Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One's Looking by Christian Rudder is an interesting and fact filled book. I received an Advance Reader's Copy from Crown Publishing, a division of Random House and my opinions were formed by my reading of this uncorrected proof.
Author Christian Rudder is one of the founders of the dating website OKCupid and he draws his research for this book primarily from the data that has been collected from paying members who are looking for relationships. He additionally mines data from other social media resources, dating services like Match.com and websites, and his pool of subjects include a cross section of the population that he believes is an excellent barometer for the opinions of Americans today. This book is filled with charts and maps and images to help you easily understand the data he has sourced and how it applies to the "everyman" in all of us.
This book approaches a wide variety of topics - relationships, personal preferences, age, gender, race and upbringing and tries to answer the question "Who are we really?" by examining what we say versus how we act. Although I felt like I came away with a bunch of quotable tidbits and an interesting peek into how the data that we so freely place on the internet is used, I'm not quite sure that I learned very much about myself from this book. Many of the observances seemed rational to me and not all that thought provoking, and although some applied to me I didn't walk away feeling like I had much personal insight.
A few of the passages left me feeling uneasy, simply because I'm not sure all the members of OKCupid were willing test subjects in Mr. Rudder's data laboratory. In one memorable instance photos of users were shown in an illustration of women who had very high and very low scores from fellow users in terms of their appeal. Although he was using them to make a point about the importance of having a photo that provokes a strong reaction is better than having a commonly pretty picture (which he describes as "meh") and he expressly thanks the subjects for their consent to be included in the book and to have their photos discussed, it still felt mildly squicky. Although the many other charts and illustrations in the book didn't deal in this same very personal representation of data, I did question the author's use of the OKCupid site at times. Although it may all be perfectly legal it makes me ask "do I need to know this?" and "is the use of this data justified in a bigger, insight gaining way that makes it important to a reader?" I'm not sure I have the answer to those questions.
As a collection of facts and data there were definitely a few things I hadn't thought about before - for example, there is a chart showing the 100 most common words used in the English language today from the Oxford English Corpus (a collection of modern writing's approach to vocabulary and word use) versus the top 100 used to express yourself on Twitter in the form of the service's 140 character tweet posts. It showed that although you may think the language of Twitter would somewhat abbreviate or diminish your ideas to get your point across, actually a person composing a tweet is much more selective and thoughtful about what their words will convey. It may help us to write clearer and in a concise style that contributes to an overall awareness of language. That awareness filters into the speech and style of a Twitter user versus a non-user. I liked the idea that my tweeting may help me generate a better and more vivid use of language. Still I kept returning to the fact that this book didn't really live up to the "portrait of our essential selves" claim that it was intended to be. It isn't a bad book. I just wish that I had a greater takeaway as a reader.
One thing that truly irked me about this book is the mention of a website link where you could go, punch in your own data (two Facebook usernames) and get a personal illustration to see one of the ideas in this book in action. In the fourth chapter titled "You Gotta be the Glue" there is an illustration showing the overlap of the author's Facebook friends and his wife's friend's. He explains in depth how we create clusters of people in our lives that know us from a specific point of view - our work friends, childhood acquaintances, family members etc. Our spouse or significant other can overlap our Facebook friendships in many categories. Perhaps you are both friends with your parents and share relationships with other couples you met while you both attended a ballroom dance lesson. The shared connections can illustrate the bonds we have as couples, and can show you the places in your relationships that have a strong and meaningful connection. I thought this sounded really cool and was happy to find an example that could be personalized to me and allowed me to be a willing participant in the experiment to see how it felt. Unfortunately this awesome personalized tool simply doesn't exist. I have tried the link dozens of times over the past few weeks and didn't post my thoughts on the book since I wanted to see this chart in action, but it still gives me a "Page Not Found" message. The book's publication date is set for Tuesday September 9th, and since this is Saturday the 6th I would think that it would be active. I hope it will go live on Tuesday at the very least. I contacted the author through his Twitter page about the lack of a working link and received no response, however another reviewer on Goodreads said that when they contacted him through email they received a response that it would be functional by the end of August. If I had paid for this book rather than receiving an ARC I would be even more disappointed. The one big opportunity to gain personal insight is so far, a bust.
If you find the sort of data in this book interesting I would check it out of the library or wait for the book to be marked down. I wouldn't consider it a must read but I am thankful I had the opportunity to read it. I hope you find this useful information, and I will update my opinion if the link works on the publication date. For now I can only give this book 2 of 5 stars.