That Time an Algorithm Whisperer Took Me to the Heart of Darkness
Joel Stein, June 14, 2017
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a brilliant, thoughtful data scientist who studies the complexities of human behavior, which is why no one has heard of him. I, meanwhile, exclusively study my own very simple behavior, which is why I have a Wikipedia page and he doesn’t.
As you can deduce from the title of Stephens-Davidowitz’s recent book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, he struggles with brevity in naming things as much as his parents did. But his fascinating, funny work uses online data (Google searches, porn views, Wikipedia entries, Facebook ad data) to prove that we are far more horrifying that we let on. …
As interesting as learning about this data was, I eventually got bored, since none of it was about me. So Stephens-Davidowitz did some quick algorithming and found out that the No. 1 question searched about me is whether I’m gay. In fact, 1 in 50 searches about me are about my supposed gayness, despite the fact that I often write about my wife and watching heterosexual porn. It turns out that this is a very common question about men, though it is more common about me. I’m pretty far from the 1 in 570 searches about LeBron James’ sexuality but very close to the 1 in 18 about Richard Simmons’. Far more disturbing is that Stephens-Davidowitz found that my fame peaked in 2006, and I am now 89% less well-known. This is probably because in 2006, I was on a show called I Love the ’70s. Also, in 2006, people still read words.
The only thing more compelling than what other people think about me is what I think about me. So I gave Stephens-Davidowitz access to my search history. “The most common search you make is ‘Joel Stein,’” he told me. Apparently, 3% of my searches are for my name, with about one self-Google per day. The average person does this so rarely, it doesn’t even register in Stephens-Davidowitz’s data. …
Then Stephens-Davidowitz said something upsetting: 5% of the time after I search the name of a female celebrity, I try to see her naked. I denied this, but he said that most people forget their own Google searches, and 5% is totally normal for a guy. What is not normal is this: “The celebrity you searched for naked most was Joel Stein.”