Data Geeks Are Watching You Flirt

In a post yesterday cheerily titled “We experiment on human beings!”, OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder admitted to conducting Facebook-style research on OKC users. As Sonali Kohli sniffs, the experiments “mostly show that people are extremely shallow and easily manipulated”:

For example, here’s what happened to traffic when OkCupid removed all the pictures from profiles for a day:


When people couldn’t see photos, they left the site in droves. Users who stuck around wound up responding to first messages faster, spent more time chatting than usual and exchanged contact information sooner. But when the photos returned, the blind dates generally stopped talking.

That’s “extremely shallow”? More like extremely human. The way we scope out potential partners doesn’t end when we go online. As Jacob Kastrenakes notes, another experiment involved the outright manipulation of users:


[I]n [that] experiment, the dating site began telling people who should have been bad matches for one another that they were actually good matches, and vise versa. In doing so, it found that just being told whether you’re a good or a bad match for someone was enough to increase or decrease correspondence with them. It wasn’t enough to fully offset the calculated compatibility between the two, but it did have a noticeable impact.

That undoubtedly made for some interesting first-and-last dates. But Brian Fung argues that OKC’s experimentation is more forgivable than Facebook’s:

People join OkCupid for a very specific reason, and that’s to find dates. To the extent that knowing how profile pictures affect your likelihood of getting said dates, the research furthers users’ own objectives. … [T]here’s no such motivating factor when it comes to Facebook. Unless you’re a page administrator or news organization, understanding how the newsfeed works doesn’t really help the average user in the way that understanding how OkCupid works does. That’s because people use Facebook for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with Facebook’s commercial motives. But people would stop using OkCupid if they discovered it didn’t “work.”

Jay Hathaway isn’t so sure:

How is this any better than Facebook using our news feeds to see if it can make us miserable? OkCupid doesn’t have a very thorough justification. “[G]uess 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,” is about as close as they get to giving a fuck.  But perhaps we’re more willing to accept this sort of thing from OkCupid because online dating already feels like consenting to participate in a social experiment. It’s a game we play with virtual strangers, while Facebook is a place we trust with our “real friends,” even when we know we probably shouldn’t.