Why OkCupid and Other Tech Companies Are Experimenting on Us
In the fallout after Facebook’s infamous experiment to manipulate the emotional content of users’ News Feeds, another tech company, dating site OkCupid, has admitted that it also conducted psychological experiments on its users without their knowledge or explicit consent.
In a post titled “We Experiment on Human Beings!” Christian Rudder, one of OkCupid’s founders, took to the company’s OkTrends blog to divulge several experiments that the site had conducted on users without their knowledge. Rudder broke the news with an attitude and tone of “what’s the big deal” toward the recent public outcry over the revelation of similar experiments, like Facebook’s Newsfeed experiment to find out whether emotions are “contagious” via social media. (It turns out that they are.)
The particular experiments that Rudder reported that OkCupid conducted were psychological in nature, like Facebook’s experiment. The company alternately analyzed the conversations that resulted when it turned off the photos on the site for a day, temporarily changed its rating system, and suggested that users date partners who weren’t a good match to see how the relationships turned out. Rudder wrote dismissively of people’s concerns that such experiments were unethical, positing that experiments on users are ubiquitous, even necessary, as companies fine-tune websites.
“We noticed recently that people didn’t like it when Facebook ‘experimented’ with their news feed. Even the FTC is getting involved. But guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work.”
Rudder noted that sites experiment on users to test out which of their ideas are good, which of their ideas are bad, and which ones can be improved with more refinement. He admits glibly that OkCupid “doesn’t really know what it’s doing,” and that’s why experiments are a necessary part of the site’s improvement:
“I’m the first to admit it: we might be popular, we might create a lot of great relationships, we might blah blah blah. But OkCupid doesn’t really know what it’s doing. Neither does any other website. It’s not like people have been building these things for very long, or you can go look up a blueprint or something. Most ideas are bad. Even good ideas could be better. Experiments are how you sort all this out.”