Summary: “Everybody Lies” http://sethsd.com/everybodylies was an enjoyable, fascinating book describing how understanding metadata about internet searches can provide information concerning people’s “true feelings, emotions, or opinions”. The book assumes people are more honest when they are anonymously seeking information. Reviewing those searches in aggregate provides information that social scientists may be unable to collect in other formats.
The Main Arguments
Researchers struggle to understand people’s behaviors, needs and their true opinions. In Part I, Data, Big and Small, the author outlines the need to frame social science research based on understanding big and small data. Using his grandmother’s dating advice was a great example of using Big Data (page 25). But there are cautions here, for we can pick and choose what observations we use in making those conclusions.
People will “lie” to researchers for many reasons, such as not expressing their true feelings to avoid judgement by the researcher. In this case, the use of internet searches, often done in private, can provide a way to better estimate broad trends concerning how people understand the world. The main section of the book, Part II, the Powers of Big Data, illustrates the disconnect researchers face when researching topics such as Sex, Hate and Prejudice, Internet, Child Abuse and Abortion, Facebook and Customers. Each topic gets an introduction concerning what people have studied, and how using internet search information can confirm, deny, or provide new insights into the topic.
Throughout the book, there were cautionary tells that having more data may not generate more/useful information or that not every belief can be quantified through the data. His discussion criticizing studies that would find “most Knicks fans live in the New York area” are useless. In Part III, “Big Data: Handle with Care“, the author begins the real discussion: big data can be a boon to good governance and addressing social needs. But the real caveat is that such needs may not be in everyone’s self-interest. There are questions that having more data could introduce more errors, such as Dimensionality, where the odds of finding a correlation between two elements is increased simply because there is just more data to find possible correlation.
Methodology, Evidence, and Context
The report was not an analytically oriented book, but the charts and tables were helpful in illustrating how we “lie to ourselves” when we consider our public disclosures (Facebook posts) compared to our private searches. I went to Google Trends to test a few searches, and it is a useful proxy concerning people’s interest in a topic by time and geography. The book presented, and footnoted, many studies, showing the author’s thoroughness, and would be a useful first document for additional research on some of these topic areas.
The book’s context and layout were very accessible, and the stories engaging. While I would have enjoyed seeing even more tables, charts, etc., such would have reduced the effectiveness of the work (and I could look them up with the references!) There are some graphics in the Ted Talk, which I found very helpful.
I enjoyed the comparison between himself and his brother regarding baseball. I am not a baseball fan, but my father loved football. Cultural references do shape experiences in ways we do not understand when we were children, but these items influence our adulthood’s tastes and desires.
I thought the best part of the whole piece was Chapter 8, Mo Data, Mo Problems? What We Shouldn’t Do, (especially after the A/B testing sections- scary that we are so easy to manipulate!) With more data, comes the assumption that “we” can do more. But does more data mean we have more actionable items, or do we simply have more confusion when making choices. The author mentions the Minority Report, the movie. When discussed in this context, the original story written by Philip K. Dick is even more horrific, as other PreCogs pick up the story at different points. Based on concerns with big data, there exist more ethical challenges that remain to be addressed concerning ownership of our physical and online identifies.
Finally, I liked the honesty of the “conclusion challenge”, especially after mentioning how Freakonomics influenced his professional interest in data research. Seth, if we ever meet, I will buy the first round in celebration of your success in writing such an accessible, fun, and most importantly, insightful book.