Alex Burinskiy: OkCupid -- it's not me, it's you

The online dating site rides to Facebook's defense for manipulating its users

Remember the controversy over Facebook's social experimentation, which showed how people's emotions could be toyed with by changing what they see online? Well, Facebook wasn't the only site playing with your heart. Dating site OkCupid has now acknowledged doing much the same thing. The mostly free dating service is being very open about how it manipulated members' online dating lives and offers a detailed explanation that amounts to a version of "Hey, everybody's doing it."

As OkCupid put it: "...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."

Uhm, no. That may be how OkCupid works, but that's not necessarily how other websites operate. (Well, ok, Facebook might be in the same league, but that was supposedly one-time thing.) Arguing that "everybody does it" and hoping for strength in numbers doesn't make what OkCupid did any smarter or more ethical. It also didn't mollify site users who were angry that their trust had been violated.

You expect things to be a bit sketchy on a dating site. But you don't expect the site operators themselves to be the ones whispering sweet nothings in your ear (or manipulating your profile).

In case you missed it, here's a taste of what OkCupid did and and how it justified its actions.

Love is blind?

On Jan, 15, 2013, almost exactly a year after Facebook ran its experiment on users, OkCupid conducted a "Love is Blind Day." Site admins removed all user pictures from the site to see how people would communicate. As the pictures went offline, so did many OkCupid users. Site traffic dropped. Love may be blind, but OKCupid members aren't.

Still, those that hung around and continued to communicate with other members got 44% more responses to their initial messages than they did with their photos visible. OkCupid said that conversations overall had more substance, and people exchanged contact information at a greater pace. (I'm curious to know how private your messages are if OkCupid knows this kind of information). According to OKCupid, without pictures, the site was better at helping match up users.

However, for many users looking to find love on OkCupid, the return of everyone's photos at 4 p.m. spelled disaster. Conversations between many people just faded away.

OKCupid traffic graph
When it removed users' photos from their profiles prompted a rapid drop in site traffic.(Graphic: OKCupid)

So what is OkCupid to do other than to reference data from its now-defunct blind dating application, "Crazy Blind Date," which showed that people had a good time on blind dates once they went out -- to an extent. Data showed that the better looking a guy was on a date, the less happy the woman was. As Christian Rudder, the study's author, as well as the co-founder and president of OkCupid, writes: "Oddly, it appears that having a better-looking blind date made women slightly less happy -- my operating theory is that hotter guys were assholes more often."

Wait a second, that's not science.

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