Ever since the big kerfuffle over Facebook’s emotion manipulation study — and the defense that this happens all over the Web all the time — we’ve been wondering what other experiments we may have been part of without knowing it. OkCupid came forward Monday with another one: it shot falsehood-tipped arrows through users’ hearts as an experiment. The dating site exhumed its three-year dormant “OkTrends” blog which used to share insights into online daters’ behavior, but went silent after the company was bought by IAC for $50 million. In a flippant entry that announces his upcoming book on data, OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder defends Facebook, brags about experiments OkCupid’s done in the past, and reveals that at some point the site told people who were poor matches for each other that they were perfect pairs, and vice versa. The site wanted to see if OkCupid’s matching algorithm actually predicted whether people would go gaga for each other, or if they were just slaves to an algorithm and would fall in love (or lust) because the data told them they should. In other words, it wanted to know if it had blinded users with data science.
OkCupid doesn’t want Facebook to stand alone
OkCupid ran two experiments, involving its matching algorithm, which much like Facebook’s Newsfeed algorithm is a bit mysterious to most users, but presumably reveals the degree to which you have things in common with another user, from books to sexual practices. In the first experiment, OkCupid “took pairs of bad matches (actual 30% match) and told them they were exceptionally good for each other (displaying a 90% match).” Unsurprisingly, the data-crossed lovers were more likely to email each other when OkCupid told them they were compatible. “But we took the analysis one step deeper,” writes Rudder. “We asked: does the displayed match percentage cause more than just that first message—does the mere suggestion cause people to actually like each other? As far as we can measure, yes, it does. When we tell people they are a good match, they act as if they are. Even when they should be wrong for each other.”
Corporate manipulation works on the heart
OkCupid based that on the fact that those users sent each other multiple messages as opposed to their convo petering off after that first one. That freaked OkCupid out, because it meant the matching algorithm might be BS. So it did the experiment again, reversing it to tell people who were near-perfect for each other (according to the algorithm) that they were not a particularly good match. And that reassured OkCupid, because those people still tended to have long conversations with one another, on average.
OkCupidplayed bad matchmaker as an experiment. Those “meant to be”
were likely to have long conversations despite the false data thrown their way
A footnote on the blog entry says that after the “experiment was concluded, the users were notified of the correct match percentage,” but it doesn’t say whether they were told they were part of an experiment or not. I emailed Christian Rudder about it but haven’t heard back from him yet. We don’t know how many people were involved nor how well or poorly dates went if the mismatched lovers did go out. But if OkCupid were to link up with bedroom monitoring alarm clock Sense, the results could be even more telling.