Bad dates: OKCupid in hot water over user experiments

05/08/2014

OKCupid has defended its recently uncovered experiments on users, which saw the dating service deliberately set up bad matches between users to see how they would respond.

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Last month, OKCupid’s co-founder Chris Rudder revealed the companies experiments in a blog titled “We experiment on human beings!”. It revealed the tests after the uproar over Facebook manipulating the feeds of its users.

"If you use the internet, you're the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site," Rudder said. "That's how websites work."

OKCupid said one revelation was that "people just look at the picture".

As well as allowing users to upload pictures and set up dating profiles, OKCupid asks users questions and matches them with potential partners based on the answers.

In one experiment, the site took pairs of "bad" matches between two people - about 30% - and told them they were "exceptionally good" for each other, or 90% matches. "Not surprisingly, the users sent more first messages when we said they were compatible," Christian Rudder, one of the founders of OKCupid, said in a blog post on the company's research and insights blog.

In another experiment, OKCupid ran profiles with pictures and no profile text for half of its test subjects, and vice versa for the rest. The results showed that people responded solely to the pictures. For potential daters, Mr Rudder said that "your actual words are worth… almost nothing".

Further experiments suggested that "when we tell people they are a good match, they act as if they are. Even when they should be wrong for each other." The company later revealed the correct scores to the participants.

Risk losing trust?

Rudder accepted blame for stocking the fires around the topic, admitting that his initial blogpost was “sensationally written”, but stood by the argument that experimenting on users was “just part of the scientific method”.
Speaking to On The Media’s TLDR podcast, Rudder said that there was no consideration given to letting users opt-in to experimentation, because “once people know that they’re being studied along a particular axis, inevitably they’re gonna act differently.

“I was in some psych experiments when I was in college, just because they give you 20 bucks to go to the department and you, y’know, you sign a form. But that is informed consent – which users can’t see, but I’m putting in quotes.”

Asked by the host, Alex Goldman, if OKCupid had ever considered bringing in an ethicist to vet the experiments, Rudder said: “To wring his hands all day for a $100,000 a year?”.
He then clarified that he “was making a joke. No, we have not thought about that”.

OKCupid said that experiments like the ones that it and Facebook ran are part and parcel of creating websites. "It's not like people have been building these things for very long, or you can go look up a blueprint or something," Rudder said. "Most ideas are bad. Even good ideas could be better. Experiments are how you sort all this out."

OKCupid is owned by media conglomerate IAC/InterActive Corp, which owns 50 brands across 40 countries.

These include other major dating sites, like Match.com, as well as news website the Daily Beast and web properties like Dictionary.com.

Read the OK Cupid blog here

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