One of the world's most popular dating websites – 30 million users and counting! – has admitted to conducting experiments on its love-hungry members. OKCupid founder Christian Rudder revealed in a blogpost that the site had conducted three experiments on its users in order to improve the website and discover more about the way people look for relationships online.
Seemingly undeterred by the negative publicity generated by Facebook after it was revealed that the social media site been manipulating users' newsfeeds to see if emotions could be spread online, Rudder brazenly explained that OKCupid had performed three experiments on their site. This included taking photos from users' profiles, removing text and deliberately matching people who had very little in common.
In his post, Rudder warned that this type of practice was widespead online: "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."
In 2013, OKCupid took all photos from their site for a day. Although overall site usage dropped, they discovered that people responded to initial messages far more, conversations went on for longer and telephone numbers were exchanged quicker. When the photos came back online, those conversations stopped. We're so shallow!
A second experiment found that what you write on your profile actually amounts to very little. OKCupid took a small sample of users and hid the text in their profile for half the time they popped up in search. According to the two resulting scores, the site found that your words are a waste of time – potential lovers are just interested in your photos, not your wafflings about where you grew up.
Perhaps the most interesting revelation in Rudder's blog was that OKCupid lied to its users and matched people who were incompatible. "We took pairs of bad matches (actual 30% match) and told them they were exceptionally good for each other (displaying a 90% match)," he said. "Not surprisingly, the users sent more first messages when we said they were compatible. After all, that’s what the site teaches you to do."
Rudder revealed the extent of the control that the dating website has over its users when he wrote, "When we tell people they are a good match, they act as if they are. Even when they should be wrong for each other."
Reactions to OKCupid's various romantic manipulations hasn't been wholly negative, probably because the experiments were aimed at improving services for users (as opposed to a sinister secret trial in emotional contagion).
But with these revelations coming so soon after the Facebook scandal, it just goes to show that we're subjected to online experimentation every day – we just don't know about it. Rudder's excuse is that OKCupid "doesn't really know what it's doing" and "experiments are how you work this out". But is it ever OK to fool around with people's feelings online?
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