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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