Every Thursday in LOL Interwebz, Luke T. Harrington explores the quirks and foibles of Internet culture from a Gospel perspective.
Lately, I’ve been poking through the book Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking by Christian Rudder. Rudder is a founder of the dating site OkCupid—a site that has yet to achieve its own rom-com directed by the dad from Psych, but is nevertheless a major player in the online matchmaking game. OkCupid built its legacy—such as it is—on collecting and analyzing mountains of data about its users, and Rudder’s thesis for his book is that, because of this sort of practice, the Internet is the first real look into true human nature.
This may seem like an audacious claim to make, but consider that up until now, sociology has only been conducted in the abstract: through surveys, interviews, and the like—and the only thing an interview or a survey can tell you about behavior is what people claim to do. By collecting data about behavior online, we learn what people actually do.Human nature, being dictated by Original Sin, is constant; it’s merely a question of how we choose to pretend to be righteous.
(I’ll let someone more uptight than me wring their hands over the privacy issues here. For my money, privacy died the day the Internet was invented, and there’s literally nothing we can do about it. Freaking out about privacy in the age of the Web is like arguing for censorship in the age of the printing press. That ship has sailed. Sorry, folks.)
So, what can we learn about ourselves from the Web? Mainly that we’re really, really racist, and really, really horny.
For instance, OkCupid asks users what sort of relationship they’re looking for—marriage, serious dating, a fling, or just some casual sex. And while you might expect the people just looking to get their rocks off to be from one of those scary coastal states, they’re actually the most common in noted “red states” Montana and South Dakota.
Okay, maybe that’s not that hard to fathom. People in states where sex is hard to find might have to go online to find sex. (Except, other top states in that category include Oregon and California, which I’m pretty sure are both just constant orgies.) To really get your attention, I might have to address the stuff that makes you uncomfortable.
So let’s talk about racism. Rudder writes that “[s]elf-described liberals outnumber conservatives” on OkCupid two-to-one, so the sort of people who pride themselves on being not-racist dominate the site. And yet, when the site asks them to rate other users’ attractiveness, an enormous bias against black users emerges—with black women consistently scoring a whole point lower than other women, regardless of the race of the man rating them.
The facts become even more uncomfortable when Rudder steps outside of OkCupid and addresses Google searches. For instance, did you know that you could predict which generally-Democratic-voting district voted against Obama based on which of them have a lot of people searching the Web for “n*gger jokes”? Or did you know that about five percent of searches for porn are for gay porn, literally everywhere—regardless of what percentage of the population identifies as “gay”? (Only 1.2% of North Dakota men identify as gay, for instance, even though four times as many are apparently into dudes.)
What I find amusing about these facts is that it takes all the wind from the sails of the standard “red state vs. blue state,” “culture war” narrative we’ve all been sold. Things like “culture” and “values” are less about how we behave and more about what we admit to in public. “The end of racism” is mostly about racists learning to shut up; “family values” is mostly about couples signing fake names at the Sleep-Eazy Motel.
None of this should be surprising to someone who understands Christian theology, of course. Human nature, being dictated by Original Sin, is constant; it’s merely a question of how we choose to pretend to be righteous—whether we choose to congratulate ourselves for our imagined purity or for our imagined enlightenment.
And, well, far be it from me to imply that the whole “culture wars” thing is something engineered by politicians and businessmen to keep you distracted while they gut education in order to give tax cuts to billionaires (don’t be silly, of course it’s not that)—but, hey, if you’re someone who gets really worked up about how “the other side” (whoever that may be) is going to destroy America, just keep in mind that the debate is really less about what skeletons we pile up in our tombs, and more about what color whitewash we use on them.