I have very few friends who love online dating – after all, you let down your guard, post a bunch of personal stuff online, and then hope someone you think is hot likes you back. Kinda excruciating, right? Well, add to that a service that messes with you, flipping the numbers on your matches so all the guys/girls who are terrible for you are suddenly an excellent choice. OkCupid admitted to doing just that, in a humorous, but unapologetic post defending the fact that they "experimented on human beings." Founder Christian Rudder wrote this piece after Facebook got in trouble for messaging people's news feeds. And while transparency is great and all, it doesn't erase the fact that OkCupid manipulated the trust of its users at their most vulnerable – when they're trying to find someone to get intimate with, on whatever level that means for them.
Rudder writes that the site had a theory that its numbers were influencing people to believe they had a good or bad match solely because OkCupid's algorithm told them so. What if the company played the stats a bit, he wondered? Would single folks still put their trust in them?
"To test this, we took pairs of bad matches (actual 30% match) and told them they were exceptionally good for each other (displaying a 90% match.)," Rudder writes. "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 ... When we tell people they are a good match, they act as if they are. Even when they should be wrong for each other."
Andrew Leonard, writing for Salon, pointed out how odd it is that Rudder is bragging about giving users "false information on purpose." And, he adds, this isn't a scientific lab test. "There’s a big different between straightforward A/B testing ... and consciously presenting false information or otherwise skewing emotionally laden data. One is completely acceptable tinkering designed to improve usability, while the other is irresponsible behavior that treats human ... emotions as play toys. Sure, the line that separates one from another is murky and confusing. But there is a line. Silicon Valley needs to start asking itself the question: How do we think our users would feel if they knew we were feeding them false information?"
And sure, in the same way that Netflix and Amazon recommend things you'd never want to try, OkCupid on its most honest days suggests people you'd never want to date. But while stats on your matches are only part of the experience, a dating site is built on many layers of trust – that you can remain anonymous, that if you're being stalked you'll be protected, and that its matchmaking is based in reality. Breaking that trust to play devil's advocate for an experiment seems like a terrible idea.
[Via Salon, image from Thinkstock]