Online Data Ownership and Privacy, with OkCupid's Christian Rudder

Big Data is a big deal. Not only is it a major asset in today's tech-driven economy, it also has the ability to tell stories about who we are as a people. Such is the aim of Christian Rudder's new book Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking)


Rudder is the Co-founder and President of the online dating site OkCupid, so you be assured he knows all about data and demographics. In fact, Dataclysm is a work very similar in subject matter to the OkTrends blog he maintained for several years at OkCupid. The popular blog offered a unique brand of social analysis relying on statistics gathered from the site's userbase. Dataclysm explains how data scientists have become the newest breed of demographers. 

Any conversation about online data invariably segues into a discussion about privacy and ownership rights. Who exactly owns your online data? When a site like Facebook or OkCupid sells your information to advertisers, should you be entitled to a cut? After all, your personal likes and follows are assets you created, right?

Rudder poses this counter-argument:

"Facebook's argument and obviously OkCupid's argument is, well, what we're giving you in exchange for your data -- very clearly -- are these tools. Like on OkCupid you can find dates. On Facebook you can connect with long lost friends. You have an easy platform to collect pictures. To the extent that any of these sites are useful, that's why people use them."

Basically, it's a trade-off. In exchange for your data, Facebook lets you use their site for free. While these sites are definitely in the business of making money, it's not necessarily yours they're after. You can assume that almost any website you visit for free is gathering information about you. This isn't always for the purpose of advertising. Basic data analytics help websites identify their audiences. On OkTrends and in Dataclysm, Rudder utilized user data to study social truths and trends. These are examples of data use on a macro- rather than micro- level.

While Rudder is a proponent of the data-for-access agreement, he believes that one should always have the option to flip the off-switch on that deal for good:

"I think there's a good argument for you being able to – when you're tired of that exchange - "I don't want to use Facebook anymore!" - you should be able to exit that experience wholly rather than leaving whatever vestige of yourself you have to leave now. I know that they give you tools for that and the world I think generally is coming around this idea, but it is scary even to me as an owner of one of these websites, if you're going to sit there and live online, and for whatever reason you want to break up with the site that you're still beholden to them even after you've made that decision."

Finally, Rudder offers a few thoughts on privacy, particularly with regard to the future:

"Privacy historically has been a luxury of the rich in certain ways. Like I bring up these examples in the book but you want to have a private car on a train, you want to have a house with walls or a house with a big yard walls, you want to live in some remote stretch out in Woodstock or wherever... But for the Internet - it's hard to argue that it will be easier to remain off-line."

So Rudder posits a future scenario. If privacy remains a luxury and the prospect of maintaining a low profile online becomes less and less attainable moving forward, it's fair to assume the most private online experiences will be reserved for the wealthy who can afford the ability to avoid the spotlight.

For more about about Dataclysm and online privacy, watch the following clip from Christian Rudder's Big Think interview:

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Originally Poe envisioned a parrot, not a raven

Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."

The Green Parrot by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Culture & Religion

By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.

In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.

As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.

Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.

And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.

"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"

It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…

The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.

* * *

If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.

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