Big Data is Collecting You

Every time you type a search into Google you are feeding it data: the questions you ask reveal things about you personally and about your group when taken as a whole. In exchange you get information. Then there’s Facebook which offers you the chance to like certain posts made by friends, pages you follow, and posts your friends have shared. Each of these interactions is a data point that, when collected, begins to tell us who we are as a collective.  And then there are countless other companies collecting data on your likes, wants and interests.


In Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are Seth Stephens-Davidowitz discusses the ways in which social scientists can use our online truthfulness to get at what is really going on in our society. For years social science and opinion polling have been ruled by the survey, but people can lie to survey takers and pollsters. I always tell pollsters that my vote is swayed by soybean futures. However, we admit things to Google that we don’t admit to anyone else – everything from racist tendencies to sexual proclivities, and that data we give to these big institutions can provide a better snapshot into our society than do surveys.


There are many implications as to what big data can tell us, we just have to ask the right questions of it. The first question is what exactly are we telling Google that we don’t tell anyone else?


On the flipside of what we tell companies like Google, I’m curious if the ability to search on just about anything makes us more emboldened to pursue regressive lines of thinking? For instance, does the ability to search for racist jokes using the n-word make being a racist seem less repugnant because those search results are out there? Or does it merely signal that racist attitudes have never really gone away?


Likewise, does being able to find links between vaccines and autism – however erroneous – lead to spikes in unvaccinated people who then ignite outbreaks? Same thing with climate change denialism – as there’s always someone out there to refute the science with erroneous, un fact-checked "data."


Everybody Lies asks different questions, though. Perhaps as we learn what big data tells us, we can understand the impact on our own lines of thinking and attitudes.

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