OkCupid Brags About Experimenting on Users

The dating site thinks the controversy over Facebook’s manipulation of users’ emotions is overblown.

A view of a sculpture depicting Cupid and entitled 'L'amour Menacant' ('Menacing Love') by Etienne-Maurice Falconet at the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam on December 21, 2012. 
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
July 28, 2014, 10:11 a.m.

Dat­ing web­site Ok­Cu­pid re­vealed Monday that it pur­pose­fully set up people with bad matches to test its own al­gorithm.

A sim­il­ar ex­per­i­ment landed Face­book at the cen­ter of a ma­jor con­tro­versy re­cently. Sen. Mark Warner and a pri­vacy group even asked the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion to in­vest­ig­ate wheth­er Face­book broke the law by ma­nip­u­lat­ing the con­tent in users’ news feeds to study how it af­fected their moods.

But Ok­Cu­pid ar­gues that neither site has any­thing to apo­lo­gize for.

“Most ideas are bad. Even good ideas could be bet­ter. Ex­per­i­ments are how you sort all this out,” Chris­ti­an Rud­der, one of the site’s founders, wrote in a blog post.

He said any­one who uses the In­ter­net is “the sub­ject of hun­dreds of ex­per­i­ments at any giv­en time, on every site.”

To test how re­li­able its own al­gorithm was, Ok­Cu­pid told cer­tain people they would be a good match for each oth­er even when the al­gorithm ac­tu­ally in­dic­ated they would be a bad match.

People were more likely to mes­sage back and forth with bad matches if the site told them they would be good matches, Ok­Cu­pid found.

But a sus­tained con­ver­sa­tion was most likely if people were told they were a good match and ac­tu­ally were. Rud­der said the ex­per­i­ment showed that Ok­Cu­pid’s al­gorithm ac­tu­ally works.

The com­pany also re­vealed less-con­tro­ver­sial stud­ies show­ing how im­port­ant pho­tos are on the site.

Justin Brook­man, the dir­ect­or of con­sumer pri­vacy for the Cen­ter for Demo­cracy and Tech­no­logy, ap­plauded Ok­Cu­pid for provid­ing more trans­par­ency about how it ex­per­i­ments on users.

But he ac­know­ledged that some people may feel misled be­cause they trus­ted the site to provide ac­cur­ate in­form­a­tion.

“There are some real eth­ic­al ques­tions,” Brook­man said, ar­guing that web­sites and poli­cy­makers should think more about where to draw the line between use­ful in­tern­al test­ing and de­cept­ive busi­ness prac­tices.

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