Yesterday morning, the online dating site OK Cupid revealed that it conducted a series of experiments on users. The post is framed as a response to the outrage that people expressed over Facebook’s experiments on users
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.
Most of the postings about OK Cupid, just like the postings about Facebook, have focused on the ethics underlying the “everybody does it” defense of experimentation on users without their explicit knowledge. Over at Scatterplot, my friend Dan Hirschman argued:
OKC is right that everyone’s doing it – and that’s precisely why we ought to do something about it now, before it gets so utterly taken-for-granted that there’s little hope of developing any kind of protocols governing transparency or accountability.
It’s interesting to note the different reactions here. Elizabeth Berman treats Facebook and OK Cupid the same way in an excellent post about path dependence. The biggest objections to OK Cupid use their experiment as a way to go back to objections about Facebook. OK Cupid’s post reminded people about the issue of algorithms, big data and “computational politics” – see Zeynep Tufecki’s recently published article on the concept. Since people have recently formed opinions about Facebook, and most of those opinions are negative, any other company revealing that it has done experiments on users could remind people about the opinion they just spent a lot of time and energy thinking about. (Communication scholars would call this a form of priming.)
In terms of comparing the two sites, I think there are major limitations. OK Cupid is well known for blogging about user experience and patterns of user behavior. In a market with a wide range of dating websites, these types of posts are a major part of how they differentiate themselves in the market and draw attention to the site. Some level of caveat emptor applies. A majority of users may not have been aware of how Facebook’s News Feed algorithm hides various posts, so it’s harder for the consumer to be aware of the risks. (See my prior post on Facebook here)
We could imagine a different set of objections specific to manipulating the dating experience if we wanted to, but OK Cupid isn’t attracting as many detractors as Facebook did. People comparing the two companies have focused on the tone of their publications (playful vs. cold), whether the intent seemed geared to improve users’ experience or sell more ads, and so on. Ironically, people haven’t talked about the most likely reason why people aren’t as outraged about OK Cupid: stuff is blowing up in other parts of the world as we speak. Since the Facebook study was published weeks ago, a passenger plane was shot out of the sky and Israel has embarked on an increasingly large military operation in Gaza.
I wouldn’t judge anyone’s priorities about which issues are the most important. However, it might be hard for many people to mount that much rage towards a dating website when other political debates online right now are focused on literal life and death. All the dating website does is remind people of the bigger political problem that Facebook may pose.