Everyone is experimenting on you, including us: OK Cupid

29 Jul 2014

Remember earlier this month when Facebook said it had experimented on its users by spiking newsfeeds with positive and negative stories to see how they affected users’ emotions?

Turns out online dating site OK Cupid has been doing some experimenting of its own – in this case, removing selected text and photos from certain profiles and even lying to some users about potential compatibility matches.

More interestingly, this isn’t even a scandal for OK Cupid co-founder Christian Rudder, who broke the news on the company blog on Monday, and seemed jolly proud of the whole thing.

We noticed recently that people didn’t like it when Facebook “experimented” with their news feed. Even the FTC is getting involved. But 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.

It's tempting to equate that statement with Sun Microsystems chief Scott McNealy's infamous declaration in 1999: "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." But technically Rudder is right.


Brian Fung at WaPo has a good breakdown about why the Facebook experiment may not be as outrageous as it seems when viewed in that context. The same argument applies to OK Cupid as well, although there are some key differences between the two experiments. For a start, OK Cupid’s findings are actually useful metrics for its users, whereas Facebook’s findings benefit mainly Facebook and its advertising customers. Also, Facebook attempted to present what is essentially a commercial analysis of internal data as academic science despite not meeting the usual standards required of academic experiments (like consent of the subjects).

In any case, the backlash from the news of both experiments is a strong indication that being technically right isn't enough. The revelation that plenty of social media and other sites are conducting experiments of one kind or another doesn’t play well at a time when more and more users are becoming aware of just how much personal data they are generating online, how much of it is being harvested, and just what its being used for. It doesn't help when your justification is essentially: "Hey, we do this all the time."

This is – and will continue to be – the primary challenge of the era of Big Data and analytics. The kind of things that Facebook and OK Cupid are doing are similar to what other companies are doing (or want to do) with their own customer data – crunching and sifting it in the name of understanding (and predicting) customer behavior, creating new services, or whatever. Big Data is the engine driving the business model of web companies like Facebook and Google, and it will become increasingly integrated with the business models of telecoms service providers (and really any other company that does business online and leverages social media in the long run). That’s making customers nervous enough without the knowledge that their online data is being used in more unexpected ways.

As Fung from WaPoputs it:

I suspect that what bothers us most of all is not that the research took place, but that we're slowly coming to grips with how easily we ceded control over our own information — and how the machines that collect all this data may all know more about us than we do ourselves. We had no idea we were even in a rabbit hole, and now we've discovered we're 10 feet deep.

At this year’s CommunicAsia, Oxford University professor Viktor Mayer-Schonberger pointed out that privacy and trust are key to making Big Data work for everyone, but regulators and legislators need to understand that it’s too late to worry about companies gathering data. They’re already doing it, and there’s no stopping it. The focus on data privacy policies needs to be on how data is used.

Then again, considering the Facebook/OK Cupid experiments date back as far as 2009, maybe it’s already too late for that.

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