In search of a social site that doesn't lie

Facebook and OKCupid experiment on users. So what's wrong with that?

In a post on his company's blog this week, OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder openly boasted, "We experiment on human beings!"

Rudder's post described a few of the experiments that the dating website had carried out. In one, OKCupid told people that they would be good matches with certain other people even though the site's algorithms had determined that they would be bad matches. That's right: The company deliberately lied to its users. OKCupid wanted to see if people liked each other because they have the capacity to make up their own minds about who they like, or if they like each other because OKCupid tells them they should like each other.

(The controversial post was Rudder's first in several years; he had taken time off to write a book about experimenting on people. Due out next month, the book is called Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking).)

The OKCupid post was in part a response to controversy over a recently discovered Facebook experiment, the results of which were published in an academic journal. Facebook wanted to see if people would post more negative posts if their own News Feeds had more negative posts from their friends. In the experiment, Facebook removed some posts by family and friends because they were positive. The experiment involved deliberately making people sadder by censoring friends' more uplifting and positive posts.

Don't like this kind of manipulation? Here's Rudder's response: "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."

What's wrong here

Rudder's "everyone is doing it" rationalization for experimenting on users makes it clear that he doesn't understand the difference between what OKCupid and Facebook are doing, and what other sites that conduct A/B tests of different options are doing.

The difference is that OKCupid and Facebook are potentially changing, damaging or affecting the real relationships of real people. They are manipulating the happiness of people on purpose.

These companies might argue that this damage to the mood and relationships of people is small to the point of being inconsequential. But what makes them think it's OK to deliberately do any damage at all?

The other glaring problem with these social science experiments is that the subjects don't know they're participating.

Yes, I'm sure company lawyers can argue in court that the Terms of Service that everyone agreed to (but almost nobody read) gives OKCupid and Facebook the right to do everything they do. And I'm sure the sites believe that they're working so hard and investing so much to provide free services that users owe them big time, and that makes it all OK.

Imagine a splash screen that pops up each month on these sites that says: "Hi. Just wanted to make sure you're aware that we do experiments on people, and we might do experiments on you. We might lie to you, meddle in your relationships and make you feel bad, just to see what you'll do."

No, you can't imagine it. The reason is that the business models of sites like OKCupid and Facebook are based on the assumption of user ignorance.

Why OKCupid and Facebook think it's OK to

mess with people's relationships

The OKCupid admission and the revelations about the Facebook research were shocking to the public because we weren't aware of the evolving mindset behind social websites. No doubt the OKCupid people and the Facebook people arrived at their coldly cynical view of users as lab rats via a long, evolutionary slippery slope.

Let's imagine the process with Facebook. Zuckerberg drops out of Harvard, moves to Silicon Valley, gets funded and starts building Facebook into a social network. Zuck and the guys want to make Facebook super appealing, but they notice a disconnect in human reason, a bias that is leading heavy Facebook users to be unhappy.

You see, people want to follow and share and post a lot, and Facebook wants users to be active. But when everybody posts a lot, the incoming streams are overwhelming, and that makes Facebook users unhappy. What to do?

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