The Wiki Man

Why does Amazon think my friend is a kidnapper?

Online data reveals all kinds of things about us that we’d never say out loud. In some cases, best hope it’s wrong…

22 November 2014

9:00 AM

22 November 2014

9:00 AM

About four years ago, an irate father in Minneapolis walked into his local Target shop with a complaint. He wanted to know why they were sending his daughter, who was still at school, vouchers for baby clothes and cots. Were they trying to encourage her to get pregnant?

When they telephoned to apologise a few days later he was more diffident. His daughter had fessed up: a child was due in a few months. But if dad hadn’t spotted any telltale signs of pregnancy, the shop had: she’d been rumbled by her recent purchases, in particular unscented lotions and certain dietary supplements. Some algorithm had spotted the significance of a sudden change in her buying habits, and triggered the ‘bombard with new‑baby offers’ subroutine.

But if you think that’s worrying…

Customers with your recent history also purchased…
Customers with your recent history also purchased…


A friend had been buying a few outdoor items on Amazon, and these three recommendations appeared. Should he expect sudden murderous urges? A visit from the police? Even if the prediction was wrong in his case, it seemed to suggest there were rather more psychopaths and kidnappers in Britain than previously suspected (and also that, as a group, they were inclined to be frugal when buying balaclavas and rope but knew not to skimp when it came to choosing a good duct tape — a handy lesson there for Spectator readers).

Fortunately, there is a more innocent explanation. The incident happened at the height of the paintballing craze and, as someone subsequently explained, all three items are regularly bought by serious paintball aficionados, or by the people who run paintball centres. Phew!

Like it or not, we generate an enormous amount of data as a consequence of our daily actions. This is worrying when it’s our data but, let’s be honest, irresistibly intriguing when it’s everyone else’s: what people do online is just so much more revealing than what they say in public. The wonderful book Dataclysm by Christian Rudder captures this well in its subtitle: ‘Who we are (when we think no one’s looking)’.

Rudder should know: a Harvard mathematician, he is the data supremo of OKCupid, a huge worldwide online dating and matchmaking site. The book analyses what the millions of aggregated clicks reveal about dating preferences — and how these often differ markedly from what people claim to care about.

Buried in the book is a rather interesting fact. Within a percentage point or two, black people on British dating sites attract exactly the same level of interest as other ethnic groups. In the US, it’s a different story, with self-identified liberals showing no less prejudice towards them than anyone else. Even pinko Canada is different from Britain in this respect. Good news for us.

Scots, interestingly, are weirdly prejudiced in a different way. According to analysis published by an adult website, the single most common word used in Scotland when searching for online pornography is ‘Scottish’. It’s not an area I know much about, but this seems unbelievably strange to me. If this finding is robust, I don’t hold much hope for the future of the Union.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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Show comments
  • Jurassic Parke

    Interesting as ever, Rory.
    Especially the point about black people on British dating sites.
    Britain is not a racist country, no matter how many Komment Macht Frei posts insist it is.

    • LastmaninEurope

      Komment Macht Frei.

      If that is an original I tip my hat directly to you, if not it’s tipped at the author.

    • rorysutherland

      It is if course one of the great advantages of being obsessed by class – it means you are less obsessed by race.

      • Except that you don’t understand how in other countries ‘class’ (or status in life, which is much vaguer and more malleable and changeable) has everything to do with race — mainly because the Leftists refused to let America be colour-blind. They have too much invested in grievance and keeping the whole misery going.

  • Laguna Beach Fogey

    It’s certainly telling that of all the details in the book, Sutherland picks out the one that involves black people. It’s almost as if White people use blacks as a moral gauge. Weird.

    Based on the data generated by my daily actions, I probably should have been locked up by now.

    • rorysutherland

      Not for that reason – but because it involved a significant difference between the UK and US.

      • Right: which you completely misunderstand, as I explain.

  • JohnCrichton89

    You haven’t really shown us anything regarding said stats, do ethnic minorities get equal attention on dating websites from the white indigenous of Britain. Likewise, do the stats for other countries have the same stats available ?

    Also, we would have to take into account what percentage of the ‘dating’ public from every racial group use the websites, their age, cultural background, religion, financial position, and so on. Then we could create multiple groups with a 1 too many link association with the white group………….and show everyone we have nothing better to do with our time because it wouldn’t make any sense.

    Not to mention the population density, which would probably be the biggest contributing factor if there was any meaning to this data. Which there probably isn’t.

    We all know the truth, Africans simply do as well in western societies as a community. If you split them up and force integration, they can achieve the same no doubt. But as a community they underachieve and are somewhat forced taking the bottom wrung in our capitalist society that values an output they are not known for.

    So racism. It technically is, everyone knows it. So people build up their defences, they look for itty bitty nuggets of random stats to shoot down accusations of racism. Like this.

    • hdb

      OKCupid’s base is a particular one not a cross section of the British public. It is much more likely to be young, educated and liberal than, for example, those on match.com.

  • ‘Prejudiced’? My word, there’s a world of presumption there, young Rory.

    There are vastly fewer British blacks than there are American ones. It’s even truer for Canadians, who never had the slave trade — and I do know that when I worked for a passport agency there donkey’s years ago, I was told that we had to be on the lookout for fraud, and that a black person claiming to be born in the backwaters of Ontario in the 1950s was probably lying. This was not prejudice: it was fact. (Actually I personally helped with a bust when a load of blank birth certificates were stolen en masse and a white guy tried to use one to obtain a passport from me.)

    A British black — if he or she truly is British and not a recent import — is likely to be as British as everyone else. But in America we have a scary underclass that is made up mainly of blacks and in many cases Latinos (not all of whom are here legally, as you must be aware). These people, culturally, educationally, civilizationally, might as well live on a different planet from me. My dislike and fear of them have nothing to do with ‘prejudice’. And the fear-dislike also predates the time that two blacks in the crime wave after Hurricane Katrina put a gun to my husband’s head. (He survived, thanks.)

    I’d also like to point out that what you glibly assume to be ‘prejudice’ cuts both ways. I don’t know whether you are acquainted with the American pundit named Walter Williams, but he made it quite clear in an article of a few years ago that the only possible candidate to be Mrs Walter Williams was a black woman. Whites and others might be lovely and fine but he only wanted a black girl. His point was that we can want what we want without that entailing ill-will towards others.

    Gosh you English are so naive in some ways. And that sets you up for serious political misjudgements!

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