Your secret dating experiments are OK, Cupid

It was revealed this week in a very chirpy blog post that the naughty sods at OkCupid have been ‘doing a Facebook’ and have been experimenting on their users. I for one am shocked and appalled and will NOT be using the site again! Oh wait, no, sorry, I don’t care in the slightest.

As a big fan of internet dating sites, and having written about them many times in the past, I can’t say this came as any sort of surprise to me. The basic premise of OkCupid’s meddling is that they artificially matched incompatible people (according to their own algorithm), as well as artificially dragging down the match percentage of highly compatible couples. I’ve dabbled in OkCupid for a couple of years now, and while those match percentages can pique my interest initially (‘A 99% match? Should I get the reception venue pencilled in or?’), they’re meaningless as soon as the first contact has been made. Never have I ultimately been swayed by a high match percentage, and likewise, I’ve never dismissed someone for being what OkCupid’s algorithm deems a poor match for me.

I have followed the OkTrends blog for well over a year. It makes available some genuinely fascinating data about the way we find and choose our potential dates, and it’s a really interesting insight into the modern manifestation of human attraction. Without body language or a voice or even motion, all we have to go on is the profile text, a few photos and this mysterious algorithm, which is based on a series of personality and lifestyle questions and weighted based on importance to the user.  Even if most of this data is based purely on usage patterns, I can’t say I’m especially bothered if OkCupid want to use me as a test subject from time to time if it’s for the greater good of the matching algorithm.

I know all about the ethical concerns, and the fact that we are all unwilling (or at least, unknowing) participants in the site’s experiments. We should give our explicit consent and be offered the right to withdraw and be given a full debrief… theoretically. But in the grand scheme of things, I can’t say this is high on my list of concerns. The worst that could possibly happen would be that I didn’t get matched with the love of my life thanks to those meddling kids at OkCupid telling me he and I were only a 30% match instead of 90%. But how much weight do we really pour into these figures? Truthfully, it’s hard to ‘know’ somebody properly after reading a profile and flicking through a carefully curated gallery of photos, and a single number shouldn’t hold much sway. I often found myself on the profiles of those elusive 99% matches wondering why everything they mentioned fell into our 1% of incompatibility. Likewise, incomplete profiles show up as a 10% match – I can’t say that has ever put me off either.

While I also didn’t care at all about Facebook’s admission that it had toyed with our emotions by doctoring the content it showed us, there is certainly a difference between the experiments. In the OkCupid experiment, nobody was really getting hurt. In Facebook’s, many people took issue with the effect constant exposure to negative posts may have on vulnerable or mentally unstable users. Conditions such as depression or anxiety could be exacerbated by seeing only sad or angry posts from their friends (in fact, I believe the FOMO-inducing stream of self-esteem-crushing humblebrag posts could be more damaging, but that’s a whole different matter). Does Facebook have any data to prove that it took the necessary measures to protect its mentally ill users? No. Can it prove its experiment had no negative effect on any participants’ moods? No. Neither does OkCupid, but I honestly can’t think how their experiment would have a negative impact on users of the site to even remotely the same extent (though do comment if you feel otherwise).

What do you think? Has OkCupid gone about this in the wrong way? Or do you not care that they could have had their hands all over your affairs of the heart without telling you beforehand?

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