Does the End Justify the Means? OKCupid’s Experiment

Red heart shape broken Though I’ve never used OkCupid, I can imagine what kind of feelings are involved. Meeting someone, putting yourself out there, can be a scary thing, even under the best circumstances.  I was troubled when I read that OKCupid had secretly used its customers for a social experiment, deceiving them with bad matches, hiding photos, and deliberately suppressing good matches in order to “see what would happen.”

Facebook recently admitted to a similar experiment in which users were exposed to emotionally charged messages to elicit reactions and drive mood. The backlash was swift. Users felt betrayed and manipulated, as though their privacy had been invaded. In fact, after many months of users’ anger, Facebook was compelled to finally change its policy.  What will the backlash be for OK Cupid, if any? What should it be? To me it raises a larger question about the relationship between providers of digital services and their customers.

The executives at OK Cupid were unapologetic, glibly stating they needed the information and claiming it happens all the time. That’s not reassuring. When we use such services as OK Cupid or Facebook, isn’t there a minimal level of trust involved? An assumption that there is no ulterior motive? If not, then what, exactly, are we signing up for? Shouldn’t users be informed or compensated for becoming test subjects?

In the “real world” such things are not acceptable. Most businesses are held to a higher standard.  Intentional deception of that nature would inevitably lead to loss of business, or worse. For example, what if food manufacturers lied about ingredients or calorie content of products in order to test the affect on its customers’ future purchases? This information would, no doubt, be hugely valuable to them. It would also lead to  lawsuits and severe legal action. If businesses can’t play with customers’ bodies to achieve a hidden agenda, how is it OK to play with their minds? Further, I would argue that something as personal and important as an individual’s feelings and states of mind is about as “real world” as it gets.

Perhaps because it is the digital world, and the users made no payment, somehow real world expectations and ethics are not applicable?  But users already pay with their attention, and without its base of attentive users, OkCupid and Facebook wouldn’t exist.  Don’t these services owe their users the product and experiences they have been lead to believe they are getting?

Deception on the internet is nothing new.  I understand the thinking behind OK Cupid’s and Facebook’s experiments, but I don’t think that end justifies the means. I also worry about the nonchalance with which such betrayals occur, and how the feelings and trust of customers is a non-issue.  With so much of our lives connected to our digital world, I wonder if, in a larger sense, a foundation of deception is being created that will ultimately have an impact many will come to regret.