Last month, the Internet found itself in an uproar as information leaked out that Facebook had been conducting social psychology experiments on its users emotions without their prior consent.
Besides the ethical boundaries that were being crossed, certain lawmakers were curious about the legal ramifications of the study, claiming that by wantonly picking people at random for these types of metaphorical mouse mazes, the company was putting the mental health of hundreds of thousands of people at risk whom they had no contact with outside of the site itself.
Now OkCupid is joining the fray, and has openly admitted to several of their own ventures into the field of long-distance psychotherapy, including removing certain bits of text from user’s profiles, changing the order of photos, and even pairing up users who were 30 percent compatible according to the company’s own arbitrary matchmaking algorithm.
Unlike Facebook, who had teamed up with several well respected universities for their tests, OkCupid seemed to have simply been running their experiments ‘because they could’.
CEO and co-founder of the site Christian Rudder was unapologetic when he took to the company’s blog to defend their actions, claiming the same defense that dozens of others have used when questioned over how user’s data is stored, analyzed, sold, and exploited in a myriad creative and morally-questionable ways.
“OkCupid doesn’t really know what it’s doing. Neither does any other Web site,” Rudder wrote.
“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.”
Although the circumstances under which the data of their experiment may have been reprehensible at best, the results of their foray into social forensics are still interesting nonetheless.
When profile photos were removed, users were more likely to talk to each other for longer periods of time, and have more in depth conversations. This of course suggests that the site is actively reading the content of their customer’s communications, but that’s a whole deal within itself that would take months of investigation to pin down any facts on the case that might actually stick.
Perhaps even more interesting is what happened when Cupid engineers skewed the match results, hooking people with lower ratings up with their opposites, and vice versa. Despite their dating algorithm being rated as one of the best in the business, it appears that people were still able to hold meaningful conversations with one another, and meet up on dates on several occasions, even if they were supposedly “incompatible” according to their match scores.
As much as one would assume that we should be picking up our pitchforks and lighting up torches outside of OkCupid’s offices, unfortunately there’s a harsh amount of truth in Rudder’s justification for the whole endeavor. We sign up for these sites, we willingly hand over gobs of data about ourselves, and expect the people in charge to take the moral high ground at every opportunity we shove in their face to not abuse the power we’ve essentially given them for the privilege of hooking up with someone when we’re half-drunk and lonely late on a Wednesday night.
If we didn’t want them to experiment on us, we would have read the TOS a little more carefully and refused to click “Agree”. As long as we’re the one’s actively participating in this kind of culture, Facebook and OkCupid will be out there using that data to their advantage, figuring out the human condition one lab rat at a time and hoping we don’t blame them for it when they come clean about it after all is said and done.