There was widespread condemnation of Facebook when it was revealed that the social network had been manipulating users' newsfeeds as part of a social experiment. Official complaints may have been made and investigations are under way, but it doesn’t seem to have served as a lesson for other websites. Now it transpires that OkCupid - the dating website whose slogan is "We use math to get you dates" - has been fiddling the figures in a series of experiments on its users, as we reported this morning. The weird thing is, the site is openly bragging about it.
In a blog post unashamedly titled "We Experiment On Human Beings!", founder Christian Rudder writes that "OkCupid doesn’t really know what it’s doing". Seems like something of an odd admission. The blog post details three experiments the dating site conducted on its subscribers. There must have been more because the post is prefaced with the words "Here are a few of the more interesting experiments OkCupid has run." Does "interesting" just mean "less controversial"? Who knows?
So is the openness to be welcomed, or should we view it a little more cynically? It just about goes without saying that I would suggest the latter. Transparency is great, but sometimes what is revealed is far from savoury. Some of the experiments listed are fairly innocuous - hiding pictures so users have to base their opinions on words, for example - but telling people they are compatible when OkCupid's "math" actually says otherwise is a little different.
That's blatantly lying to people, and that's never right. The results of the experiments are tedious to most people outside of OkCupid, but the mere existence of the experiments is fascinating.
The timing is a little weird. On Monday, a tweet from the OkCupid account proudly proclaimed "The OkCupid blog is back! New post up now...", while a tweet from Christian was similarly excited: "Very happy to announce the first OkCupid blog post in three years". Why bring the blog back from the dead after so long? It might be slightly late to ride the wave of controversy surrounding Facebook's experimenting, but it's an attention grabbing story which captures the zeitgeist. It's said that there's no such thing as bad publicity - which I would argue is nonsense - but advertising a stunt like this is a sure fire way to get noticed. What’s that, Christian? You have a book coming out in September? Interesting stuff.
Facebook's experimentation was bad enough. We have enough to worry about without having the added concern that what we're seeing - even when it is from our friends - has been processed through some third-party filter. But OkCupid is a different matter. The site may be free, but it's dealing with people's hearts, minds and lives. Christian Rudder may think himself tremendously clever for crunching the numbers and gaining all of this free publicity for his book, but the argument that "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" just doesn't cut it. Of course websites try things out; different designs and layouts, new features, different types of content and so on, but that's really not quite the same thing as lying to users.
Is OkCupid off the hook for being retrospectively honest? Not in my book. It's probably covered in some small print somewhere, but it's still unethical and dishonest, and it breaks my heart.