OK Cupid, a popular dating site, recently released a blog post titled “We Experiment on Humans Beings!” (Note the very fitting logo). The post proudly explains that the company has conducted a series of experiments on its users in an attempt to optimize its algorithm. The caveat is users were unaware that they were the subjects of an experiment. OK Cupid paired bad matches together and told the users that they were actually good matches to determine the effectiveness of its algorithm.
In the podcast, An Imperfect Match, the hosts talk to the president and co-founder of OK Cupid, Christian Rudder. Rudder defends the companies actions with the in-the-end-it-works-out-better-for-everyone utilitarian argument. However, the hosts don’t buy it. They feel that informed consent is a crucial part of social science experiments. Additionally, the hosts explain that companies performing experiments seem to ignore the ethical standards and safe guards typically present in social science experiments that are necessary to protect the subjects.
Both the OK Cupid blog post and the podcast mention the outrage over similar tactics used by Facebook back in June. (SparkNotes: Facebook manipulated users’ newsfeeds to determine the affect on their moods without gaining informed consent). However, many websites, not just Facebook and OK Cupid, track user activity to gauge experience and develop performance metrics, which is why this is such a significant topic for discussion. Rudder argues that you’re the subject of science experiments merely by using the internet. This reminds me of the saying, “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” OK Cupid, Facebook, and many other sites offer their services for “free.” But, is it really free or are we selling ourselves, our habits, our personal information, and our privacy? Are you willing to sacrifice these things for better performing sites? Have we entered into an assumed trade agreement without even knowing it?
The OK Cupid issue specifically has not gotten much press most likely because we have become desensitized to organizations breaching trust and privacy of its customers. Additionally, relative to larger scandals, such as Facebook, it is small – but it’s a slippery slope. Sites such as OK Cupid and Facebook have a profound ability to impact our lives, affect our moods, and influence our behaviors. As the hosts said, they are capable of immense “emotional manipulation.” Should something be done or are we signing an implied informed consent agreement just by signing up?