OkCupid, a popular dating site in the United States, is making Facebook-like headlines for Facebook-like practices. The matchmaking site is flat out admitting it mismatched users in a technology experiment.
OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder said his company doesn’t know what it’s doing and argued that other Web sites don’t either, in a Monday blog post. Rudder’s confession is bold, given the backlash against Facebook’s 2012 psychological experiment that tried to manipulate people’s emotions by displaying positive or negative content in the more than 689,000 users’ news feeds.
“When we tell people they are a good match, they act as if they are,” Rudder said. “Even when they should be wrong for each other.”
Three Intimate Experiments
Rudder described three separate experiments. The first was called “Love Is Blind” and it compared the reaction of its users when photos were posted versus when photos were not posted against profiles. People responded to the posts without photos 44 percent more often, conversations went deeper, contact details were exchanged more quickly, and, overall, Rudder said OkCupid worked better.
“And it wasn’t that ‘looks weren’t important’ to the users who’d chosen to stick around. When the photos were restored at 4 p.m., 2,200 people were in the middle of conversations that had started ‘blind.’ Those conversations melted away,” he said. “The goodness was gone, in fact worse than gone. It was like we’d turned on the bright lights at the bar at midnight.”
In the second experiment, the site set out to decide what a picture was worth. The thinking was that a person might not be classically gorgeous or handsome but could still be cool, and the site wanted to recognize that. The result: “looks” and “personality” were the same thing to its users.
Power of suggestion was the crux of the third experiment. Rudder said OkCupid’s match percentage was good at predicting relationships, and correlated with things like message success, length of conversations, whether people actually exchanged contact . The matchmaking site tested pairs of bad matches and told them they were actually good matches.
“OkCupid definitely works, but that’s not the whole story,” Rudder said. “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.”
We caught up with Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, to get his take on OkCupid’s experimentation. He told us if these site users had been part of an opt-in controlled experiment it would have been OK -- but given that the site was simply trying things out on users at large without any disclosure is plainly unethical.
“Most sites do A/B testing to improve the user experience. But when they get into manipulating or misleading people it crosses the line. By the same token it's very hard to prevent or regulate this sort of activity by publishers,” Sterling said.
“The only thing that can be done is censure or fine them after the fact in the hope of deterring this kind of behavior in the future. It's acceptable to recruit people to be part of social science studies but it's definitely not [acceptable] to ‘experiment’ on them without consent," he added.