OkCupid lied to users about their love matches, calling it an “experiment”

Science tube

On Monday, OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder told the world – surprise! – just like Facebook, the company has been experimenting on its users. The gist of the post was, “You know how mad you were at Facebook? Well we did it too!”

In excruciating detail, Rudder laid out some of the behavioral tests the website has run on its unwitting daters. The first two are harmless: for example, the company removed all user images for a day to celebrate the launch of its blind dating app. It was a test run to see whether people were willing to take a chance on potentially ugly people. Spoiler alert: Nope. The second one tested how profile text impacted users’ judgments of each other. Spoiler: Very little. We’re shallow creatures who care more about photos.

The most concerning experiment Rudder shared was the last one. OkCupid lied to users for a period of time about their match compatibility. It told two users who weren’t a match that they were, and vice versa. Lying to users, particularly about something as sensitive as romantic matching, is ethical gray area.

When OkCupid users have a high match score with another user, they know what that means: This person probably has similar tastes, religious background, educational experience, or whatever other traits they’ve ranked as important to them after filling out a lengthy time-consuming profile. In other words, OkCupid potentially schlepped unwitting Republicans and Democrats off on a date with each other, which sounds like the premise for a reality show.

Rudder explained in the blog post, “In the back of our minds, there’s always been the possibility: maybe [our matching formula] works just because we tell people it does. Maybe people just like each other because they think they’re supposed to?” When Ok Cupid lied about a duo’s compatibility, the two were more likely to carry on an extended conversation with each other.

The confession is eerily similar to Facebook’s recent “sentiment” testing on users, where the company played with positive and negative newsfeed items to see whether people’s emotions could spread virally the way they do in the physical world.

When it comes to social media A/B testing, such companies might want to develop more rigorous ethical standards for such “experiments.”

There’s a difference between changing fonts and layouts — or, say, removing dating profile pictures — and toying with users’ emotions and relationships. It’s a fine line to straddle, but on one side is standard product experimentation and on the other side is a creepy futuristic novel waiting to be written about social media companies.

In any event, it’s a strange admission for OkCupid to make. Perhaps it’s an attempt to preempt the ire of the internet, in case some investigative reporter dug up the information? Of course, it might also just be a plug for Rudder’s new book Dataclysm, since it’s advertised at the bottom of the post.

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