Facebook vs. Google: The Battle of Self Projection versus Who We Really Are

Data Scientist, Contributing Writer at The New York Times

To know who someone really is, don't look at their Facebook wall—look at their Google Search data. This is off-limits information to most people (definitely for the best), but data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has analyzed what's behind that curtain. His findings echo what you may intuitively feel: skepticism over how incredible everyone's life looks on Facebook, compared to your own. He cautions people not to compare yourself to that rosy standard for a pretty simple reason: it's a bundle of lies and exaggerations. Facebook presents who we want to be, but Google Search knows who we really are. Davidowitz calls it a "revolutionary truth serum", one that reveals that on Facebook husbands are described as "amazing" and "so cute", but in the confessional booth of Google Search, they are "gay" "jerks". Ouch. What it boils down to is that bragging is lying, but searching for knowledge is truthful. That, and that Facebook and Google might be the best social experiments ever designed. Stephens-Davidowitz is the author of Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz: Google, I think, is a revolutionary data set. I call it digital truth serum because people are so honest to it and they confess things that they might not confess to anybody else to that little white box on a search engine. Facebook is different. Facebook is digital 'brag to my friends about how good my life is' serum, where people try to make themselves look good on Facebook.

So if you compare two magazines, The Atlantic Monthly and the National Enquirer; The Atlantic Monthly is kind of an intellectual, highbrow magazine, with poetry and philosophy and political theory. And the National Enquirer is a lowbrow trashy magazine, with celebrity gossip and rumors and stuff like that. And on average the National Enquirer sells more copies than The Atlantic Monthly, but on Facebook The Atlantic Monthly is 45 times more popular than the National Enquirer because everybody wants their friends to think they’re reading The Atlantic Monthly. They don’t want their friends to think they’re reading the National Enquirer which makes them seem less impressive. And people exaggerate their financial situation. Circus Circus, a budget hotel in Las Vegas, holds about the same number of people as the Bellagio, a luxurious hotel in Vegas. But people are about three times more likely to check-in to the Bellagio than Circus Circus.

So I think on Facebook you get bombarded with these images: Oh, all my friends are staying at the Bellagio. Well, you know, about the same number of them are saying at Circus Circus, they may just not be posting that on Facebook. And I think it’s interesting to compare these two sources, Facebook and Google: Facebook where you’re showing off to your friends, Google where you’re just getting the information you need.

So one of the comparisons I talk about in the book is the ways people describe their husbands on the two sources. The top ways people complete the phrase 'My husband is...' on Facebook is: my husband is the best, my best friend, amazing, so cute and awesome. And on Google the top ways people describe their husband—also one of them is 'awesome' so that checks out—but the other ones are: a jerk, gay, so mean and annoying. So that’s kind of the difference between what people are saying when they’re trying to impress their friends and what people are saying when they’re trying to get information, and maybe being, I think, more honest. Alcoholics Anonymous has this phrase: don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. And I think the 21st-century big-data version of that would be: don’t compare your Google searches to other people’s Facebook posts.