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How The Internet Reveals Our Innermost Desires

May 11, 2017

Think about the last thing you searched for on Google. And the thing before that. And the thing before that. Those searches would probably give someone a pretty good picture of who you are and what you’re all about. At least, that’s according to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of the book Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, who believes that the questions we ask online often reflect what we truly think.

Stephens-Davidowitz is a data scientist, and he looks through our digital detritus to find out more about who we are; things like Facebook connections, Pornhub video views, Wikipedia entries, data on white nationalist websites, and, especially, Google searches.

And, by examining these digital breadcrumbs, Stephens-Davidowitz has uncovered some interesting findings.

Take the effects of race on Barack Obama’s 2008 election to the presidency. When most people responded to surveys, they claimed that race didn’t play a factor in their votes. But, by taking a look at the country’s Google searches, Stephens-Davidowitz found that the amount of racist queries in a certain location, (searches that included hate speech, etc.) correlated almost perfectly with places where Obama did worse than other Democratic candidates.

So, according to Stephens-Davidowitz, race matters more than Americans might like to think, which actually isn’t that surprising. What is surprising is where racism is located.

“I think that most people think that racism is predominantly an issue in the South,” Stephens-Davidowitz said, “but, actually the racist divide is East versus West.” He found clusters of racist searches in places like upstate New York and rural Pennsylvania.

Stephens-Davidowitz says there’s a lot of surprising data to be found. For example, doesn’t having mutual friends mean a relationship is more likely to work out? According to a study about Facebook friendship … no. The more mutual friends with strong ties you have on Facebook, the less likely a relationship is to work out.

And, people are deeply insecure about sex. “Men make more searches about their penis than any other body part,” said Stephens-Davidowitz. And the searches are mostly about how to make it bigger and what size is normal.  

As it turns out, learning about insecurities can be helpful. After Stephens-Davidowitz published an article in which he mentioned that lots of women were searching for information about vaginal odor, sex educators reached out to him about that very subject. By learning that this was an insecurity of teenage girls, educators were able to address it and try to mitigate concerns.

Search engine data is quickly becoming a data trove for researchers intent on finding out what we really think. Without invading our privacy, it offers a window into topics many of us are unwilling to talk publicly about, even to pollsters. Stephens-Davidowitz believes that possible uses for such data are only beginning to be imagined.

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