If you’re going to use the Internet for social purposes (or pretty much any purpose at all) you should get used to the idea that online service providers are conducting experiments on you more or less continually. In the latest example, on Monday, Christian Rudder, the president of online dating site OkCupid, revealed that the service had recommended bad matches to see how people would react.
Specifically, OkCupid wanted to investigate the always intriguing question of the power of suggestion: although user profiles contain all kinds of information that supposedly predicts whether they will or won’t get along, perhaps the most important factor is really just the fact that OkCupid tells them someone is a good match. To test this hypothesis, OkCupid presented users with profiles of date prospects who were supposedly at “90% match,” when in fact they were really just a “30% match.”
According to Rudder, users did indeed send more messages to other users whom they believed to be a good match, which only makes sense. The interesting part was in the follow-up to the first message, because users in secret “bad match” combinations continued to communicate as if they really were in “good match” combinations. Thus when users were told they were a “90% match,” and they sent one message, there was a 17.4% chance that they would exchange a total of at least four messages; whereas users who were told they were a “30% match,” and exchanged one message, were only half as likely (9.4%) to then exchange at least four messages.
To cover its bases ethically and stuff, OkCupid later informed users what the real match numbers were supposed to be. Rudder disclosed that it also conducted several other experiments on its users, including studies to determine the relative impact of profile pictures versus text (surprise, pictures win hands down) and how people would react to blind dates, meaning matches suggested without photos.
The most important message in Rudder’s blog post, however, was this wake-up call to us all: “… 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.”
Of course, it’s an open question if anybody is listening to these warnings, or really cares enough to do anything more than, say, tweet indignantly a few times about privacy and whatever.