“Dataclysm” by Christian Rudder

Available at your local bookstore.
I received an ARC from Random House. I was excited when I got it in the mail. Thanks Random House!

Christian Rudder, a Harvard grad and co-founder and president of the dating site OkCupid, has written an engaging book in which he uses data to analyze human behavior. Most of the data is taken from OkCupid’s user base, and is presented as an aggregate so no one is singled out. According to Rudder, he is telling the story of the masses.

Dataclysm is a wonderful read. It’s funny, light, and relatable with a few narratives thrown in. The book looks thick but it can be a quick read if you have the time for it. It also helps that the text and graphs are visually appealing. If you’re interested in graphic design, I suggest taking a look at Rudder’s graphs and tables. He presents a variety of them in a clean manner that makes them easy to understand.

Rudder draws surprising conclusions from his data though some were more of a confirmation for what I already know. A few points Rudder uncovers include: older men are more attracted to younger women (a glance at the TV show Millionaire Matchmaker proves this); using Twitter may actually improve one’s writing than hurt it; the more followers a person has on Twitter, the more that person sounds like a corporation. He also includes his opinions on his findings, some of which I disagree with, but I like reading them. He doesn’t try to ignore the subjectivity of his research.

One problem I have with his data, though, is that he takes it for granted that people on OkCupid are being entirely honest on their profiles. People do lie on the internet and often try to present themselves in a favorable light. I think Rudder should have taken that into consideration even if OkCupid does ask a bunch of questions to weed out the fakes. It makes me question the stats in his data even though his conclusions ring true.

I also wonder how OkCupid users will react after reading this book that is based on their interaction with the website. Yes, the individual is lost in the masses but some individuals may be sensitive to such use of their personal information. It’s as if Big Brother is watching your every movement, documenting it, and then trying to figure out how it pertains to his goals. Thus it goes without saying that—

As enjoyable as this book is, some may become a bit paranoid after reading it, especially after reading the last chapter, Breadcrumbs, in which Rudder discusses the possible ways our data are collected and used. This chapter highlights the fluidity of privacy on the internet and how invasive companies can become to gather as much information as possible on its users. The more a person interacts with the internet and uses social sites such as Facebook, the easier it is to identify the user.

After reading, I couldn’t help wondering how the matter of privacy will be handled in the future as the internet becomes more important and data more essential. Maybe there will be no such thing as privacy, which Rudder hints at in the Breadcrumbs chapter as he talks of improvements to algorithms used to identify users. Glenn Greenwald’s TED Talk on privacy confirms my belief that a lack of privacy would be devastating. Greenwald is a lawyer, journalist, and author, whose book, No Place to Hide, discusses surveillance in the U.S. and his experiences reporting on the Snowden files. His presentation is quite informative and I highly suggest you give it a watch. (See video below.)

Another topic Rudder discusses is race. According to Rudder, “race has less effect on match percentage than religion, politics, or education.” However, Rudder’s data proves that Blacks (men and women) are the least desired of the racial groups (Whites, Latinos, Asians, Blacks). I don’t find that surprising as I’ve heard that mentioned before. What I do find surprising is Osagie K. Obasogie’s findings, which Rudder mentions. Obasogie is a legal scholar and sociology professor. His research found that even people blind from birth harbor the same attitudes toward race as those with sight. Thus their interest in their date tend to decrease once they discover that their date is Black.

I find this surprising because it proves how ingrained discrimination is in society, especially the negative perceptions of Blacks. Considering our history, society, and media that influence our perception, I wonder if that’s why Whites are revealed as the most desirable in Rudder’s data. I think Rudder’s discussion on race is some of the most illuminating findings in his book. I especially enjoy chapter 10, Tall for an Asian, in which Rudder provides tables that list words that are most unique to each racial group. The tables reveal how the racial groups differentiate themselves.

Dataclysm is worth the read. It’s engaging, insightful, and provides many opportunities for debate if you’re one of those who enjoy discussing topics with friends as a mental exercise (I sure do). It will be an eye-opener for those who aren’t entirely aware of how much of their data are being collected and analyzed when they use certain websites. Some may not see that as a problem, in which case I will again direct you to Glenn Greenwald’s TED Talk. Both—the book and the video—are worth the attention.

Quotes from Glenn Greenwald’s TED Talk, “Why Privacy Matters”:

“There are dozens of psychological studies that prove that when somebody knows that they might be watched, the behavior they engage in is vastly more conformist and compliant. Human shame is a very powerful motivator, as is the desire to avoid it, and that’s the reason why people, when they’re in a state of being watched, make decisions not that are the byproduct of their own agency but that are about the expectations that others have of them or the mandates of societal orthodoxy.”

“…mass surveillance creates a prison in the mind that is a much more subtle though much more effective means of fostering compliance with social norms or with social orthodoxy, much more effective than brute force could ever be.”

“What all of these seemingly disparate works recognize, the conclusion that they all reach, is that a society in which people can be monitored at all times is a society that breeds conformity and obedience and submission, which is why every tyrant, the most overt to the most subtle, craves that system.”

“…when we allow a society to exist in which we’re subject to constant monitoring, we allow the essence of human freedom to be severely crippled.”

“…the measure of how free a society is is not how it treats its good, obedient, compliant citizens, but how it treats its dissidents and those who resist orthodoxy.”


4 thoughts on ““Dataclysm” by Christian Rudder

  1. Thanks for linking to my review! I really enjoyed reading yours. I also felt like the author’s conclusions often confirmed what I suspected and I appreciated that he pointed out some of the weaknesses in his own work. That always makes me trust someone a bit more. The thing about blind people potentially still being less attracted to black people was pretty depressing. The fact that even people who can’t see can be influenced by societal biases about appearance makes me worry about how difficult eradicating these biases will be.


    1. You’re welcome and thanks for visiting Katie! And I’m glad you enjoyed my review. I too am worried about whether such biases will ever be erased. If it does happen, it will be way in the future. The effects of past events (slavery, segregation, etc.) will take a long time to overcome.


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