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Social Media Experiments: Where Should We Draw the Line?

By Jacquelyn Stephens
8 Aug 2014

Consent may be important in the dating world, but not so much to online dating site, OkCupid. Christian Rudder, CEO of OkCupid, admitted in a blog post that the site had run several experiments on its users over previous months, without their knowledge. Perhaps the most controversial of these experiments was one in which the site told users that they were a much better match with someone (a percentage of alleged compatibility based on an algorithm) than they actually were. It was found that more messages were sent when people were told that they were a 90% match, even if they were truly a 30% match.

OkCupid CEO Christian Rudder’s defense is that the experiments were necessary to improve the operation of the site and maximize users’ matches. In the Terms and Conditions that each user agrees to, the company does state that people’s data may be used, but informed consent for the experiments was neither requested nor granted . Rudder also claims that these experiments are commonplace on the internet and should just be accepted without question by society, saying that “if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site.”

Academic research done on dating or social media sites typically involves observing user profiles and finding statistical correlations, though never outright manipulation of users’ profiles. In this regard, the OkCupid experiments, as well as the previous Facebook experiments of a similar nature, cross into questionable territory.

Should corporations be held to the same standards as academic research? Or were the OkCupid experiments justified in order to provide a better service for its users?

Jacquelyn worked as a Graduate Fellow at the Prindle Institute for Ethics from 2014-2016 after graduating from DePauw University. She is now in graduate school at Northwestern University.
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