Unlike Facebook, OkCupid shamelessly experiments on us

The online dating site admits to running experiments on its users and manipulating what they think. Have no fear, however, as it's for a good cause.

okcupid.jpg
CNET

OkCupid doesn't have the reach of a billion-person social network, but it's still using humans as guinea pigs in an never-ending experiment to figure out what makes romance tick.

In a blog post titled, "We Experiment On Human Beings!," OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder pulled back the curtains on the online dating website's more questionable actions, including outright lying to users about how compatible they are with others to measure how significantly perception informs reality.

The post is an indirect response to Facebook's stark missteps in conducting and disclosing its emotion-manipulating experiment last month. Facebook rejiggered nearly 700,000 people's News Feeds two years ago and used its arcane terms of service agreement to garner consent, earning it immense backlash when the study was published in June.

Rudder, on the other hand, says we should expect no less. "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," he wrote.

OkCupid has a long history of detailing the data it collects on user behavior, but has never so transparently outlined its real-time experiments. Rudder, in an effort to set a better example than Facebook, is perhaps doing so to put OkCupid on firmer ground. Internet users are now becoming more conscious of the ways in which companies wield control over not only information on the Web, but our thoughts and feelings too.

In a refreshingly blunt admission, Rudder also outlined why website experiments -- especially in social realms like online dating -- are so integral to improving these tools:

I'm the first to admit it: we might be popular, we might create a lot of great relationships, we might blah blah blah. But OkCupid doesn't really know what it's doing. Neither does any other website. It's not like people have been building these things for very long, or you can go look up a blueprint or something. Most ideas are bad. Even good ideas could be better. Experiments are how you sort all this out.

Rudder detailed how the company's ill-fated attempt at a blind-dating app and a disastrous marketing stunt for its launch -- OkCupid removed photos for an entire day -- revealed that "basically, people are exactly as shallow as their technology allows them to be." The company also discovered, and confirmed through experimentation, that by and large people tend to care only about a person's profile picture, and not the profile's text.

Yet OkCupid's more fascinating experiment was the one that directly manipulated our perception. It raises eyebrows both for the audaciousness of OkCupid's willingness to disclose it publicly and for what it reveals about us.

screen-shot-2014-07-28-at-11-43-03-am.png
The online dating site found that its core algorithmic promise does hold water, but not by much. OkCupid

"The ultimate question at OkCupid is, does this thing even work?" Rudder posited. "Does the mere suggestion cause people to actually like each other? As far as we can measure, yes, it does."

OkCupid knowingly misinformed some users, telling them a drastically different compatibility rating than what they actually achieved to see whether it would lead to more conversations. People who were told they were a 90 percent match and actually were a 90 percent match achieved the highest rating, proving partially that pairing human beings based on an algorithm does in fact yield better results from a statistical standpoint.

It doesn't, however, discount that fact that OkCupid users are still operating based entirely on perception, acting how they are informed to act because there's no other way around it.

"OkCupid definitely works, but that's not the whole story," Rudder concluded. "And if you have to choose only one or the other, the mere myth of compatibility works just as well as the truth. Thus the career of someone like Doctor Oz, in a nutshell. And, of course, to some degree, mine."

If you're an OKCupid user who feels betrayed, possibly even now second-guessing a seemingly sound mathematical meeting with your loved one, don't worry too much. They're just numbers -- and on the Internet, these numbers happen to change.

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Show Comments Hide Comments
Latest Galleries from CNET
Bento boxes and gear for hungry geeks (pictures)
The best tech products of 2014
Does this Wi-Fi-enabled doorbell Ring true? (pictures)
Seven tips for securing your Facebook account
The best 3D-printing projects of 2014 (pictures)
15 crazy old phones from a Korean museum (pictures)