Internet

OKCupid Brags That It Experiments on Humans, Too


If you look for dates online, you’re the guinea pig for all kinds of experiments run by snarky Internet types, who grind up your loneliness and use it to feed their algorithms. Christian Rudder, one of the founders of OKCupid, proudly admitted as much on Monday in a post on the company’s blog entitled: “We Experiment on Human Beings!

OKCupid’s admission wouldn’t have come if people hadn’t gotten so angry about Facebook’s (FB) decision to tinker with users’ newsfeeds and publish the results in an academic journal.

The Facebook backlash came because they were conducting experiments on people’s emotions without the subjects’ permission. By that standard, OKCupid’s experiments were much worse. After all, dating is all about feelings. In one test, the company wanted to see if its matching algorithms—the way that it predicts whether people will like one another—worked. So it told people who it thought wouldn’t like each other that it thought they would like each other. So, you know, OKCupid performed the equivalent of setting people up on bad dates and then watching them from across the restaurant, giggling.

It turned out that OKCupid could get people not only to contact people they wouldn’t like but to carry on conversations with them, simply because the company’s computers told them to do so. When the company told people whom its algorithms calculated to be 30 percent compatible that they were 90 percent compatible, the couples were 70 percent more likely to continue a conversation after the initial contact.

Dating sites love to talk about all the data they have to analyze. OKCupid has written about its experiments in the past, as in a 2011 post revealing that “beer-lovers are 60% more likely to be okay with sleeping with someone they’ve just met”. Rudder is trying to drum up momentum for a forthcoming book on the insights that can be gleaned from people’s personal data. His post is also clearly protesting the backlash to Facebook’s experiment by arguing that emotional manipulation is how all Internet companies find out what makes users happy.

“We noticed recently that people didn’t like it when Facebook ‘experimented’ with their news feed. Even the [Federal Trade Commission] is ‘getting involved,’” wrote Rudder. “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.”

Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

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