The premise of this book is that data gleaned online from Google and less so, other sites such as Facebook and porn sites reveal new insights about our human behavior that have eluded traditional research and resulting data sets. Of course, this makes sense: in the privacy of our homes, we are free to search online for whatever we desire—free from the judging eyes of others. Without any social forces to influence us, that means we can explore our secret selves—what ails us, what shames us, and what interests us that we don’t want others to know.
Think: Base Self. And that is what the content of this book predominantly explores. Stephens-Davidowitz confirms that men search about their size and women search about their smell. That there’s a lot of action in the porn scene—more than previously estimated. And when unemployment goes up, so does child abuse, as evidenced in the rise of kids’ heartbreaking Google searches such as “my dad hits me.” As a data scientist at Google, then the New York Times, Stephens-Davidowitz’ revelations about the human psyche and human behavior hit on every front: mental illness, human sexuality, child abuse, abortion, advertising, and religion. Everybody Lies is a bit like reading The National Enquirer. But worse. And true.
More interesting is Stephens-Davidowitz’ assertion that the web will transform social science like the telescope and microscope transformed natural science. He speaks of four unique powers of Big Data:
it provides new sources of information
it captures what people actually do or think (vs. what they tell researchers)
it enables researchers to zero in on and compare demographic or geographic subsets;
and it allows for quick randomized controlled trials that show not just correlation but causality
Now, this is cool stuff. And increasingly so when we think about the future implications on traditional research methodologies used by educational institutions, corporations, and myriad other firms. Will the focus group become obsolete? The phone interview? Will observational techniques married with Big Data become the new ‘Holy Grail’ for gleaning understanding? Do we even need to observe behavior anymore because consumers are so effortlessly telling us what they are thinking and doing online? Wow. Just wow.
There’s no question that the power of Big Data is true or that Everybody Lies is evocative if not voyeuristic reading. My wish though is that Stephens-Davidowitz’ would have spent more time exploring Big Data’s influence on research science than on divulging what he learned peeking into our homes after dark.