Christian Rudder was one of the founders of the dating site OkCupid. Running a site like that involves making decisions based on observations of people's behaviour gathered from their computer data - what works or doesn't work when it comes to helping people hook up? The concept of studying the kind of data which can be gathered from social media and search engines in order to build a better picture of the society in which we live became an obsession for him and he began sharing what he discovered on his blog. This book provides an overview of this topic. It asks the question : "Who are we when we think no one is looking?" In the past we have been dependent on surveys for much of our sociological information and they are limited by the size of the sample and the possibility that those responding to them may not always tell the truth even in situations which guarantee anonymity.
This is very much a book aimed at a popular audience and it does what such a book should do - it entertains, it informs and it encourages thought. Rudder doesn't take a rigorous scientific approach. He is content to let his personality and life philosophy shine through in his presentation and interpretation of the data. This is one reason why the book is so entertaining. Rudder comes across as a witty, likeable guy and there are times when his book is laugh-out-loud funny.
But interpretations of data are only as good as the depth of reasoning the interpreter has put into them. It is easy to jump to conclusions. For instance, Rudder presents data which shows that the percentage of searches for gay porn to porn as a whole on Google is relatively even across the United States, and concludes that this "frustrates the argument that homosexuality is anything but genetic". While it is true that it argues against the paranoid view that people are "recruited" to homosexuality, I'm not sure he has thought through the full breadth of the debate about genetic vs. environmental factors in the generation of sexuality. Firstly, a genetic origin doesn't necessarily mean an even spread. Dark skin is definitely genetic, and there are some countries where the majority are dark skinned and others where light skinned people predominate. When we say that something is genetic we are essentially saying that it travels in bloodlines. This doesn't mean that it can't be an underlying tendency passed on by those in whom it is not active of course. But there are socially-arising phenomena which, because they go so deep into the nature of what it means to be human, are fairly evenly spread through different societies. My own belief is that we are all born with the potential to be "polymorphously perverse" bisexuals and that our "love map" (to use a term coined by psychologist John Money) - the filter of fixations and inhibitions which determines what turns us on and what turns us off - is formed by environmental factors, many of which are very subtle. As with chaotic systems, small events early in life can lead to major changes in the human psyche. Rudder implies that we should expect a variation in the prevalence of gayness in different states based on their relative tendency toward liberality vs. conservatism on the topic. It is true that growing up in a homophobic environment would tend to lead to inhibitions about male-male sex, but since we also have a tendency to fixate on those aspects of our nature we feel least able to simply accept (the tongue in the sore tooth effect), we might expect these two things to balance each other. Also, it has to be said that even those who support gay marriage may sometimes subtly express a sense that it is preferable to be straight, which could have an effect on the forming sexuality of a young person. One needn't live across from the Westboro Baptist Church to feel nervous about kissing your same sex partner in public. And, even if homosexuality were inborn, this needn't mean that it is genetic. Some have suggested that it may be related to the mix of hormones provided to the fetus, something which can be effected by stress. It would not be surprising to find that stress is fairly evenly spread across U.S. states.
The book reads like a mystery story where the collective human psyche - or sometimes the collective psyche of a race, gender or sexual orientation - is the culprit being stalked. Around every corner is more descriptive evidence. Sometimes it can be funny when a study of the words most typical of a race or gender or sexual orientation backs up well-known stereotypes. It can also be a little depressing. We long to be surprised about some aspect of human nature, but statistical norms are probably not where we are likely to find such surprises. It is worth remembering that major change can begin with an individual, and individuals are invisible in this kind of mass data. If the internet had existed in 600 AD, and so this kind of data collection had been possible, the tweets and Google searches of a guy named Muhammed would have been an invisible drop in the bucket drowned out by the masses talking about that era's equivalent of Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber. But today one of the big statistics we may be gathering is how many people follow the religion that he established. These tools are extremely useful in tracking changes in society, but the birth of those changes is the place where we may still be surprised.
Another limitation, as Rudder acknowledges, is that this kind of information can tell us the "whats" but not the "whys". We can see what people are doing, but we can't see their motives or know whether the motives behind a shared behaviour are also shared or are diverse. The data is grist to the mill but not an end in itself.
Sometimes the information raises as many questions as it answers. Rudder places a lot of emphasis on the discovery, from beauty rating statistics on OkCupid, that non-blacks tend to rate blacks as less attractive than whites, asians or hispanics. He presents this as evidence of, possibly unconscious, racism. For me this raises a number of interesting questions. If I tended to rate black women as less attractive than white women, for example, would this be because a racist low opinion of black women was causing me to see them as less attractive? Or is it possible that a tendency to find black women less attractive, which might be purely biological and have nothing to do with my opinion of their worth, cause me to subconsciously see them as less worthy? Rudder refers to studies which have shown that women who are viewed as attractive are more likely to be successful with job interviews regardless of whether the interviewer is a man or woman, thus how attractive we are judged to be can lead to social injustice, and if perceived attractiveness is distributed unequally to the various races this could have a similar effect to conceptual racism. I'm not sure where this leaves us, but part of me wants to know if it isn't enough that I view someone else as my equal. Do I really have to find them physically attractive as well? Do we even have any control over who we do or do not find attractive?
The book doesn't only deal with aggregated statistics. It is often at it's most compelling when dealing with aspects of internet culture itself. There is an account of the origin and spread of the concept of "personal branding", some hilarious anecdotes about internet marketing campaigns gone wrong and some horror stories about the phenomenon of the Twitter mob. I'm sure most of us have seen examples of this. The two examples Rudder concentrates on are one in which a teenager made a joke about the age of the earth and was viciously attacked by a mob who apparently believed she was serious. The other was of a woman who made a racially insensitive joke, found that it spread very quickly, leading to a mob salivating over the prospect of her losing her job, which is what happened. Why does this kind of thing happen? The structure of the phenomenon is an ancient one - it was there behind the "witch" burnings and the Crusades, and is still with us wherever a woman is stoned for adultery, wherever someone is lynched, wherever anyone launches a "Holy War" against "evil"... There are multiple layers to our psyche. The most superficial layer is our ego, which compromises the public face we show the world as well as our private self-image. Below that is what Sigmund Freud dubbed "the Id", the dark and turbulent repository of feelings we have repressed or disowned. Below that again, I believe, is our deepest nature, one of pure love and kindness. The ego can be a fragile thing. Faced with the turbulence of what lies beneath we can feel very insecure about own self worth. This can lead us to try to establish our identity as "the good guy" by singling someone else out as an "evil-doer" and attacking them. Not only do we reinforce our self-image but we get to drain off some of the scary aggressive feelings that otherwise might threaten us. This can be such a seductive strategy that once one person puts it into action there will tend to be plenty of others ready to join the "Jihad".
This is an immensely entertaining book and one which I think will play an important role by inspiring interest in a field of enquiry which shows great promise of helping to enlighten us about ourselves.