If you read one thinkpiece on the Totally Not OK Cupid experiment, make it this one


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Hi Xeni - What I said at the time the Facebook study was first posted about on here was this:

While I understand your (and my) offense at the study, I also agree with @Humbabella. This study comes as little surprise. Before I even read any of the comments here, I did go check out the study. They’re looking for ways to tweak people - only ever so slightly - in an emotional direction. Their goal isn’t to send you into a spiraling depression - you’d never open your wallet. They just want proof that remote emotional tweaking works. (Don’t worry, I still think it’s horrible and manipulative.)

I did understand at the time that both parties were manipulated, but the focus was to manipulate targeted possible clients/purchasers. While not a lot of explanation gets thrown around, this was an effort to better target advertise online. Much advertising takes advantage of emotion, and the more remote the advertiser, the more aggressive the campaign. Right now companies are freaking out about the fact that there’s no consistency to rates of advertising money spent online and resulting sales. They don’t know how to spend online advertising dollars, and it’s freaking them out.

The reason I’m re-explaining this is because the people running the test really didn’t care about the people whose posts they altered. They didn’t represent possible dollars in the study. They weren’t the focus group, but they were a part of the study. That said, the testers’ action didn’t make those users complicit, any more than a dropped text would make you responsible for “failing” to contact a person about a changed meeting time. Those users - in good faith - put up their posts thinking they were visible. Without their knowledge the testers changed the visibility of the posts for only some viewers. Because the senders didn’t intentionally block the posts themselves - or know about - they’re not responsible at all. Only the service is.


I don’t use either site but am more at ease with OK Cupid’s experiments compared to Facebook. The premise of their website is that they are doing data mining at running your profile through (arbitrary) algorithms to find a “match”. You know that they’ve computed all kinds of statistics on your data to tweak their magic matchmaking algorithms. Facebook presents itself merely as an innocent place to converse with your friends. And because it’s dynamic is already so deeply woven into present-day society it darkens the certain sinister implications of their experiments.


But with OK Cupid you’re presumably paying for the privilege of using their service (and least partially, you’re the customer, not the product) and should have a reasonable expectation that they’ll at least be applying the algorithm in good faith. If they’re outright manipulating your results and hiding information about/from you they’re screwing with the service you’re paying for. I wonder if anyone is going to sue for the cost of a bad date?


Are they proclaiming that the match-making algorithm is fool-proof to start with? You could just as easily attempt to get them to reimburse a bad date with someone who was a match.

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OkCupid is free (well, I think you can pay them to prioritize you in listings or something), but their primary difference over things like eharmony is that using the service is generally free. So as with Facebook, you are the product.


IDK, I mean, I agree with what he says, but I also think we are all of us, too invested to be objective. I mean, it comes to mind to think about cellphones, and just how ubiquitous they are nowadays, I’m sure its hard for some people to think back to a time when a person could be effectively “lost” for most of the day while now we have come to rely on FB and twitter to “keep us connected” and OKCupid to meet someone, so much so that its hard to imagine life without them.

Now, (arguably) beginning with cellphones, it seems that any new social technology that comes into existence in order to enhance our life does not have a simple upfront cost to pay, instead, we have to pay for the privilege of participating in society, first in cash then in micro transactions that result from our interaction with the technology.
Basically, the pay to play model mapped on to real life.

Seems to me that once we understand that FB and the like are necessary, we’re just basically “haggling over the price”. We know it costs us most of our privacy and even some of our free will (Because everything we do is potentially public). But fundamentally, we’ve sort of agreed that this is worth having.

But what if we could take a step back and start building these technologies from scratch, with the understanding that one day, this would be something that would allow us to keep in touch with friends and family, that we would schedule our lives through it, that we would use it to organize ourselves to demand freedom and start a revolution.

Would we build this on top of the advertising model?
And would we be OK with building a system that can be gamed so easily?

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So they have a set of wishy washy social “science” based algorithms. Naturally they are not certain how well it works, and need a control group. So they do the right thing and actually TEST the non-use of their algorithms on a small sample. Of course, controversy ensues.

Not doing the test would be dumb (as without it, the matching algorithms are more voodoo than technology). Would you be happier if they just keep it under the wraps? Or if they were promising some handwaved algorithms that may or may not work as promised?

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I don’t care about the OK Cupid experiments because I signed up because I KNEW they did such experiments, and that’s why I joined them (and eventually got married to someone I met through the service).

Basically, the experiments are part of the service, to me. It wouldn’t be as valuable without them! And from everything I’ve seen, the experiments seem to be conducted in such a way as to make the service more useful to me, and they (in fact) even release the results of many of their experiments in posts that help people better understand how to use the service effectively. That stuff is great! They’ve made me okay with the idea because they are open about what they are doing, and it seems to make the service more valuable to me.

Facebook, though… none of that applies to Facebook.

I’d be more upset if OkCupid wasn’t conducting experiments, as it seems like it would completely rob the service of its value.

The poster of this article seems to have an entirely different conception of what OkCupid is for than both myself and (from what I’ve read) the people who actually run the service. He thinks it’s some sort of information-sharing site, or some sort of social media site, or some sort of… creative expression publishing garbage, which is just strange to me. It’s a matchmaking service. It exists to try and get you together with people you might be good with. In order to do that, it has to try to figure out who you might be good with. Questioning whether their algorithm is working correctly and whether they are encouraging users to do the right thing (which seems to be their two big areas of experimentation) only seems like a good thing in pursuit of that goal.


Has OKC said they are manipulating the data of the paying customers, also? I missed that specific detail when I read the piece.

That would be very dumb of them to screw with the paying customers. Theft of service is easy class-action lawsuit territory.

Secretly substituting french vanilla for regular vanilla at the FREE ice cream counter however, is not quite as actionable. (though you’d never know it, people feel entitled to an awful lot for free)

I would assume they were. I’m not sure if it would count as theft of service though - if their intent was to ultimately improve the service they offer for those paying customers, and they continued to provide the service throughout (the service isn’t showing your profiles to other people, it’s finding you possible matches), then it doesn’t seem very actionable.

The service Facebook provides IS showing the messages you write to other people though. Or at least receiving messages other people write. If Facebook had paying customers, their experiments do seem like they might be actionable… but that’s probably why they don’t really have paying customers. (aside from their advertisers, but that’s a different service)

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Paying customers or not, isn’t this simply a function of the terms spelled out when you sign up for one of these services?

The internet is great at promoting “free” services but when you look more closely, these services are not really free. The social media companies wouldn’t exist if they couldn’t make a profit. If something like Facebook were deemed to be a “necessity” like insurance, cars or groceries, then there would be more regulation.

I have to admit, on one hand, I understand some of outrage about FB, but, on the other hand, has there ever been any reason to think it was run for your benefit? They filter the hell out of the service, to make more money for them, go look at all your friends, and see how many posts you’ve missed. Yeah, they did something that wasn’t directly making money, but it wasn’t for your benefit, but nothing they do is.

The vast match.com empire (bought okcupid, who then took down their post explaining why match and eharmoney sucked) would probably pay good money for a matching algorithm that WORKED. They don’t have it, so all they can do is try thing to see if they can do any better. That’s what this was, I expect, and hope, that they are trying new stuff all the time, they can find people that don’t suck, but are not so great at finding the truly right person.

They have different agreements that you sign to be a paying customer, or non-paying user.

There is no guarantee of a great date on OKC. There is no guarantee of getting all the information you care about on FB. If you can’t stomach event the remote possibility of your date choice being a very bad match, or your feed filtering and prioritizing algorithm missing important things, don’t use either site.

What if OKC profiles without photos lead to better dates? They certainly might. What if a happier FB feed leads to happier people? It certainly can.

Sure, we can go the route of requiring sites to warn users if they do A/B tests, but that’ll only lead to something like the current situation in EU where you need to close the “I understand that this site uses cookies” popup on every site you visit.

I actually had exactly the opposite reaction. Facebook gives you a news feed and it ordinarily doesn’t contain all kinds of stuff. Didn’t I read recently that if I were to follow a particular company and they didn’t pay Facebook then there was only something like a 3% chance that I would see anything they post? I go in and tell Facebook I am interested in someone or something and they don’t put it on my news feed unless it suits them (well, hypothetically, it’s not like I use Facebook).

OKCupid, on the other hand, gives me a totally different impression. If someone looked at my profile and it didn’t show them my profile I’d feel very annoyed by that. I guess from an ethical perspective it doesn’t bother me that much, but it sure would make me want to stop using their service. I guess in that regard maybe I see them both as just-as-bad. These are companies that are purporting to do something for you but aren’t really doing that thing because actually doing what they are supposedly going to do wouldn’t fit their business model.

I just can’t get my head around how it is especially unethical for Facebook to selectively show you things in an effort to better sell ads in this case. Selectively showing people things to better sell ads is what Facebook does. That is the essence of Facebook. Facebook is a machine for selling ads by selectively showing people things.

If it is unethical to sell a service that is supposedly one thing but is really another then Facebook is unethical on those grounds. This is just one instance of Facebook doing that. It’s like we are getting mad at cigarette companies for selling one particular carton of cigarettes.

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