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In search of a social site that doesn't lie

Mike Elgan | Aug. 4, 2014
Mike Elgan would like to find a social network that doesn't lie to users, doesn't experiment on users without their clear knowledge, and delivers by default all the posts of the people they follow.

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.

 

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