The ‘what’ but not the ‘why’ — on the limitations of big-data.
Recently I was encouraged by colleagues to read Savage and Burrows (2007) ‘The Coming Crisis of Empirical Sociology’, a paper that addresses the growing fears around the perceived redundancy of sociology in the age of ‘knowledge capitalism’. After restlessly tussling with the idea that technology might be making me less employable, I managed to convince myself that there was little hope that big-data could equate to effective advocacy in the same way that qualitative interviews can. This was particularly discernible when thinking about my own thesis topic which seeks to address the experiences of women who use commercially motivated dating apps that don’t employ appropriate elements of ‘safety by design’.
Whilst big-data has its obvious commercial benefits, like allowing corporations to make inferences based on socio-spatial buyer trends, it does not tell us much about lived human experiences. Essentially, it can often tell us the ‘what’, sometimes the ‘who’, but generally not the ‘why’ behind human behaviours and interactions. Take for example, Tinder’s use of anonymised data to investigate, on behalf of Gilette, whether women preferred unshaven or bearded men. This was a useful analysis of big-data because it told of the ‘what’: women prefer unshaven men. Was there a social reason for this finding, an historic one? Who knows and who cares. Gilette got the answer they required and everything else became mere hogwash in the wider scheme of things. Again, for its own promotion Tinder’s user data serves a pragmatic purpose. Dr. Jess Carbino used her ‘findings’ to deliver advice to users about how to promote themselves effectively on the platform, describing that no glasses and a big smile could guarantee users a higher match rate. But even Tinder itself acknowledges the limitations of its own data. When they wanted to learn about the real life lived experiences of their users, they resorted to large scale surveys (n = 9574), analysing issues like user intentions and the longevity of online relationships.
Because my research is interested in the human experience that transcends the dating app itself, and not so much the behavioural patterns that users engage in ‘on’ it, the constraints of big-data make it virtually useless for my specific purpose. I want to be able to delve into the intimate thoughts and feelings of participants and find out the ‘why’. Why will they meet with some men and not others? Why will they meet in some places but not others? And overall, why are we, as women, having to change our behaviours to make up for the shortfalls of technology that is designed by men and ignores our unique experiences?
Savage and Burrows (2007) advocate for “campaigning for access to such data where they are currently private,” an objective that I believe is only achievable through appropriate use of the qualitative ‘interview style’ methods that we have been using for centuries. We need to analyse real-life lived experiences first to demonstrate the dangerous consequences that are created when corporations withhold their big-data sets from us, and use them to serve their commercial motives in favour of improving the safety of their users.