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Book Review: Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What The Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
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Book Review: Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What The Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What The Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What The Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Anyone who’s taken upper-division courses in one of the social sciences knows that research in the field is often dependent on surveys. Do you find this joke or that one funnier? Do you feel threatened by the women in your office? Please rank these six variables in order of importance to you in selecting a breakfast cereal.

It becomes clear only a few sentences into Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (Dey Street Books, 2017) that these surveys are almost laughably unreliable. Even promised that responses will be confidential and anonymous, people lie on surveys, as evidenced by recent American election results and predictions by survey analysts.

Stephens-Davidowitz, a former Google data analyst and current writer for the New York Times, says that people do not lie when typing queries into search engines. Seeking advice for their problems, content to sate their passions, answers to their questions, and like-minded others with whom to engage, they reveal the truth of their attitudes and desires emerges. The researcher emphasizes the anonymity of his data, pointing out that he’s looking at trends over populations, not lie-detection in specific people, an important detail to keep in mind.

The buzz around this book soon after its release often centered on salacious, surprising tendencies, and there’s plenty of that here, as sex and sex-related topics are the sort that people seem to lie most often about, but there’s a lot more here than that. Men’s responses to their wives’ pregnancies, for example, differ by country, with men in one country seeking poetry to read to their pregnant wives while men in another seek advice on what to do now. Across the board, people’s searches for humor on the internet reject conventional wisdom: they don’t look for jokes when they’re feeling down, but when they’re feeling good.

Most fascinating--and perhaps most thought-provoking--is the author’s assertion that this data is the most revealing and most valuable data ever collected, not necessarily because of its size, but because its size allows analysts to zoom into meaningful subsets of the data. He considers implications for future use, since this data is very young and very recent, suggesting that conclusions will reach beyond prediction based on correlation, into prediction based on causation. “The microscope showed us there is more to a drop of pond water than we think we see,” he asserts. “The telescope showed us there is more to the night sky than we think we see. And new, digital data now shows us there is more to human society than we think we see.”

The who and what of this revelatory data is the most fun to read, but the underneath stuff, the why and how, might be the most valuable for those seeking the bigger picture of all this bigger data. Stephens-Davidowitz breaks down early the specific qualities that make the data special. Big Data offers up new types of data, unlike any that’s been collectible before. Big Data is honest data. Big Data allows observers to zoom in on small subsets of people. And Big Data allows for causal experiments. The meat of this book examines these separate powers and how they play out among our fellow internet-using citizens.

It’s only July, but it’s not crazy to predict that Everybody Lies is the early favorite to be the best, most interesting book of the year. Put a bookmark in whatever you’re reading now and pick this up, and then pass it around. At the very least, it’s an amazing conversation starter. At the most, it forces us to rethink our relationships with each other and our interactions with online services.

 

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Book Review: Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What The Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz - Executive Leadership Articles

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