Should You Be Upset By Facebook’s And OkCupid’s Experiments On Users?

  • Thursday, August 07 2014 @ 07:03 am
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If you’ve been anywhere near a news source lately, you probably heard about Facebook’s big news feed experiment. The social network manipulated the news feeds of hundreds of thousands of users to see if the emotion they absorbed through reading content on their news feeds impacted the emotion they later displayed in their own posts. People were, unsurprisingly, not too psyched at the revelation that Facebook had toyed with their emotions.

Shortly afterwards OkCupid revealed that it, too, has experimented on users, and the furor started again. In their most recent experiment, OkCupid told users — falsely — that they’re compatible in order to spark more conversations. As a result, OkCupid found that perceived compatibility is just as effective as real compatibility.

Reactions to both experiments have been mixed. Some have said that OkCupid’s testing is less controversial than Facebook’s. Others have called the OkCupid experiment worse than Facebook’s. What everyone seems to agree on is that they’re not quite sure if they should be upset or not. On one hand, lying to customers seems like an obvious faux-pas. But on the other hand, isn’t that just how the Internet works?

As Josh Constine noted in a TechCrunch post, by using services like Google, Twitter, LinkedIn and yes, Facebook, we agree to be part of experiments that change the way we experience the sites. The experiments are called A/B tests, and companies use them to figure how to encourage users to visit a site longer or click more things. This is nothing new.

However, there may be some room for concern. In academia, research involving human subjects is severely limited and carefully monitored by review boards to ensure that it is not deceptive and harm is minimized. Where companies are concerned, there’s no such thing as a review board. It’s up to the companies themselves to abide by the core principles of ethical research.

So how should you feel about Facebook’s and OkCupid’s experiments?

Any way you want. Unlike those two companies, I’m not here to manipulate into doing or feeling anything.

But if asked to take a stand, I’d have to put myself pro-OkCupid and less-than-convinced about Facebook. Facebook deliberately tried to change users’ emotions for the worse by manipulating content in their feeds, all without their consent. It’s hard to get behind that, no matter how much you enjoy psychological studies. For OkCupid, I’m willing to give a pass. At the end of the day, those kinds of experiments are just OkCupid doing its job. Without testing, OkCupid would never improve its ability to match users – and that’s the whole reason we’re there in the first place.