OkCupid -- it's not me, its you

Remember the controversy over Facebook's social experimentation, which showed how people's emotions could be toyed with by changing what they see online? Well, Facebook wasn't the only site playing with your heart. Dating site OkCupid has now acknowledged doing much the same thing. The mostly free dating service is being very open about how it manipulated members' online dating lives and offers a detailed explanation that amounts to a version of "Hey, everybody's doing it."

As OKCupid put it: "...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."

Uhm, no. That may be how OKCupid works, but that's not necessarily how other websites operate. (Well, ok, Facebook might be in the same league, but that was supposedly one-time thing.) Arguing that "everybody does it" and hoping for strength in numbers doesn't make what OKCupid did any smarter or more ethical. It also didn't mollify site users who were angry that their trust had been violated.

You expect things to be a bit sketchy on a dating site. But you don't expect the site operators themselves to be the ones whispering sweet nothings in your ear (or manipulating your profile).

In case you missed it, here's a taste of what OK Cupid did and and how it justified its actions.

Love is blind?

On Jan, 15, 2013, almost exactly a year after Facebook ran its experiment on users, OkCupid conducted a "Love is Blind Day." Site admins removed all user pictures from the site to see how people would communicate. As the pictures went offline, so did many OkCupid users. Site traffic dropped. Love may be blind, but OKCupid members aren't.

Still, those that hung around and continued to communicate with other members got 44% more responses to their initial messages than they did with their photos visible. OkCupid said that conversations overall had more substance, and people exchanged contact information at a greater pace. (I'm curious to know how private your messages are if OkCupid knows this kind of information). According to OKCupid, without pictures, the site was better at helping match up users.

However, for many users looking to find love on OkCupid, the return of everyone's photos at 4 p.m. spelled disaster. Conversations between many people just faded away.

So what is OkCupid to do other than to reference data from its now-defunct blind dating application, "Crazy Blind Date," which showed that people had a good time on blind dates once they went out -- to an extent. Data showed that the better looking a guy was on a date, the less happy the woman was. As Christian Rudder, the study's author, as well as the co-founder and president of OkCupid, writes: "Oddly, it appears that having a better-looking blind date made women slightly less happy -- my operating theory is that hotter guys were assholes more often."

Wait a second, that's not science.

Profile pictures tell all

So, what about the photos you use in your profile? OkCupid wants you to know: They're worth absolutely everything in your profile, and writing anything about yourself is a waste of time. When users were asked to rate potential dates on their personality and looks, more attractive people had higher personality scores. This really does us a favor by revealing how shallow we really are. Rudder makes his point by explaining that a person who displayed an image showing a lot of skin and looking pouty was rated as being in the 99th percentile for personality, meaning that she seemed to have a better personality than 99% of OkCupid users:

The catch here was that the profile contained absolutely no text to describe her personality. As Rudder explains, "[She's] obviously a really cool person to hang out and talk to and clutch driftwood with." This should probably give us all something to think about.

The experiment

Here is where the experimenting turns rather shady. Granted, OkCupid needs to be able to test how well its matching algorithm works. But what happened in this experiment is that the site changed users' match levels, telling people that they were a 90% match when in reality they were a 30% match, and vice-versa. OkCupid did exactly what Facebook did: It toyed with people's expectations -- and emotions. At this point, I'm not sure which experiment is worse.

What OkCupid officials did not reveal -- and I doubt that it cared -- was how users felt when nothing worked out and their time finding a mate was wasted. According to OKCupid's data, only about 20% of users exchanged more than four messages.

Online dating has become a big industry, worth more than $1.2 billion in 2013. Although OkCupid is largely a free service, it charges for "premium" features, like its A-List service, or the ability to filter results by body type. Despite all the pseudo-science data offered up in OK Cupid's explanation of what it did and why, I'm still wondering whether it's manipulated the results of its users outside of this experiment, and whether paying users were affected. If you're getting augmented results, does OkCupid deserve your money?

If it is impossible to know when the information you are being given has been altered, I would say no. Frankly, paying to get lied to is just a sketchy business practice. And it raises questions about whether this type of testing is happening on other sites owned by OkCupid's parent company, IAC, including Match.com, Chemistry.com, and Tinder. (I reached out to OkCupid for comment. I got no response.)

OKCupid users' reaction

There are a variety of ways a company can go about testing new ideas and strategies. However, it is becoming apparent that social networking and dating sites really only care about their bottom line and have checked your feelings at the door, leaving many users upset and hoping that the sites come crashing down. Some commenters on the OkCupid study were blunt:

"Another idiot internet dating site shoots itself in the foot, and I'm gonna enjoy watching you go down in flames."

"OkCupid doesn't really know what it's doing. Per your own blog post."

"So if this is the reality of online dating, where a company can read through your "private" messages and alter your results, I would call this one hell of a security breach. Rather than being a pawn of a money-making experiment and having your privacy violated, next time you see someone reading your favorite book on the train or find yourself talking to the person who makes your coffee in the morning, if you feel that spark, go ahead and keep the conversation going. Heck, you never know, you might end up marrying your baristaI did."

Although companies like Facebook and OkCupid have bulletproof terms of use, the ethics of their actions are questionable. None seem to consider the possibility that their actions will make their customers mad and undermine interest in their sites. IAC's other dating sites could see losses due to a breach of customers' trust. After all, when you send a message to someone, you should expect privacy, not an employee analyzing it to discern how long it took you to exchange phone numbers.

It seems that ethics have disappeared from social media companies. In this case, it's time to break up.

Alex Burinskiy is a technical analyst at IDG, Computerworld's parent company. He was previously an Apple Store genius for four years and has worked with a range of IT systems, from personal to enterprise, for nine years. You can find him on Twitter (@aburinskiy).

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