Christian Rudder, one of the founders of OkCupid, fessed up Monday in a blog entry that his dating website has been "experimenting" with its 30 million users as well as the information users provide.
He explained just three of those experiments — try to imagine, for a moment, the experiments he didn’t think fit to share on the blog — including one in which OkCupid lied about the “match percentage” calculated for potential couples. Two people, for example, who really only came out as a 30 percent match were told instead they were a 90 percent match. This experiment, Rudder explains, was meant to test the power of suggestion.
So what happened? “When we tell people they are a good match, they act as if they are," he writes. "Even when they should be wrong for each other.” Later, he said, the dating website revealed the correct scores to the participants.
In another experiment, OkCupid asked users to rate both looks and personalities. Even in the profiles without text, people tended to rate those with better looks as having a better personality. "So, your picture is worth that fabled thousand words, but your actual words are worth … almost nothing," Rudder writes. A third experiment involved taking photos away for seven hours one day last year. While most users, seeing no pictures, remained on the sidelines during that brief period, those who remained online during the experiment interacted more than usual. Rudder found, in fact, users were 44 percent more likely to respond to a first message, while also being more inclined to exchange contact details.
So now for the real question: Exactly how did OkCupid users respond to Rudder’s revelations of these willy nilly experiments on the unlucky-in-love? While many enjoyed being pranked, more than a few others felt quite the opposite, with one person succinctly noting, “This doesn’t inspire any trust in your system.” Another felt the experiments may not have been as harmless as Rudder suggested: “People, esp. women can get targeted by predatory men on dating websites which can and does result in stalking, abuse, assault — and you play with real-life people just to see how this plays out? Stop for a minute and think about what you are doing. This is not okay.”
This policy, though, was created to legally protect the company, without, some might argue, any regard for users. In her essay about Privacy, Columbia Law Professor Patricia J. Williams writes how we are “…always pressing little buttons that say ‘I agree’ to terms of service, conditions of usage, and privacy limitations that we never bother to read." She continues:
Consider how ritualized that behaviour has become, the act of consent rendered thoughtlessly. ... If one bothers to print off the actual contracts to which those little buttons refer, the monolithic imbalance of bargaining power rises before one. ... Often running to thirty or forty pages of language that leave corporations with no responsibilities and individual consumers with no rights, the utter lack of public engagement with such terms means that there is virtually no consumer movement or pushback to the accumulated wealth being mined from the data.
Yes, we all understand by now that websites mine the data we freely (and yes, that's debatable) provide, and just because something is legal, doesn’t make it ethical. It doesn’t matter whether you are a user of OkCupid or not — this fresh knowledge that a dating website experimented with data in this way, I would argue, injures us all. We are harmed in that we all feel a little more paralyzed in the face of privacy erosion, we all feel a little more overwhelmed by the technology we use daily (for our jobs, in many cases), and we all feel a little more alienated from one another just knowing some of us are using the information gathered from others of us in unforeseen ways.