Last month Facebook got a lot of backlash for an experiment it conducted to test people’s emotions. OKcupid unapologetically said it experiments too, and that’s OK
Last month Facebook received a lot of backlash for admitting that it manipulated some users’ news feeds for a week in order to conduct a social experiment. While the social network never erased or changed any content on its site, users felt angry and cheated.
Then, earlier this week, online dating website OKcupid announced that guess what “We Experiment on Human Beings!” But users here didn’t seem so mad at the revelation.
In a July 28 post on OKcupid’s blog, founder Christian Rudder wrote: “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.”
“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.”
This is what websites do
Since it was founded 10 years ago, OKcupid has conducted all sorts of experiments. When it released its app on Jan. 15, 2013, it had a “Love is Blind Day,” when it removed all pictures from profiles for seven hours and realized people were 44% more likely to respond to first messages when no one had profile pictures. It also realized the content of the messages was deeper and contact details were shared faster – probably so pictures could be exchanged some other way. It also noticed that when pictures were restored, many conversations that started “in the dark” ceased immediately.
“It was like we’d turned on the bright lights at the bar at midnight,” Rudder wrote. So yes, looks are important, it didn’t take an experiment to figure this out, but it does say something that even if people had good conversation in the dark they had no problem breaking them off when the lights came back.
A second experiment it conducted was on asking users to rate others’ looks and personality. It found that people rated looks and personality the same, no matter what was written in their profile. So a profile with a pretty picture and no text often got great looks and personality ratings, meaning people judge others’ personalities based on their looks.
In another experiment, it tested out its power of suggestion. The site gives people a percentage of how much of a “match” they are with another user, and according to its internal measures that watch message success, conversation length, and the exchange of contact information, it is pretty good at determining if people are a match. But the questions is, do couples really match or do people like each other just because OKcupid tells them they are a match?
To test that, it took a bunch of bad matches (30% or less) and told them they were great matches (90%). It found that the power of suggestion works, and if the site tells people they are a match, they act as if they are. (OKcupid did tell people later of their actual match percentage.)
What’s the difference?
Isn’t this third experiment worse than what Facebook did? OKcupid didn’t only manipulate what people saw, it actually lied. But OKcupid didn’t get the same backlash that Facebook did. Yes, some people were mad, but there wasn’t any viral criticism of the experiments online even though both companies admitted to playing with users’ emotions. Is this because dating is more experimental than interacting with friends and we already expect to be played with in the dating world? Or are people fatigued from the Facebook experiment, and have now learned that this should be expected when browsing online? Maybe OKcupid’s confession wasn’t met with as much criticism as Facebook’s because it has fewer users, but it does have roughly 30 million users worldwide, according to an estimate from 2013.
I’d like to ask how this is any different from when Google shows you ads of things it knows you looked at or wrote about in an email. Like Rudder said, using the internet means accepting that whatever you do could be used and analyzed for other purposes.