Is It Unethical, or Business as Usual, to Use Social Website Visitors as Unwitting Guinea Pigs in Site Experiments?

Thursday, July 31, 2014
(photo: Stockbyte, Getty Images)

For the second consecutive month, a major social media website has admitted to manipulating its users, all in the name of Internet experimentation.


In June, it was Facebook, which said it had deliberately changed its news feed to 700,000 people to gauge their emotional response. Users did not respond well to the news, with many saying they felt like they had been turned into online guinea pigs.


Now, it’s the popular dating site OKCupid, which revealed this week that it had conducted experiments on its community members.


Users had their profile pictures obscured for a day. Some others had their profile text altered by the company. And some were told that certain members were better, or worse, matches than what OKCupid’s software had really determined. The intent was to see how the changes would affect users’ actions, and to find out if the OKCupid website needs tweaking.


Company executives confessed to the manipulations on the site’s blog (with a post titled “We Experiment on Human Beings!”), and didn’t express any regrets for their actions.

Christian Rudder, president of OKCupid, started out with the admission, “OKCupid doesn’t really know what it’s doing. Neither does any other website. It’s not like people have been building these things for very long, or you can go look up a blueprint or something. Most ideas are bad. Even good ideas could be better. Experiments are how you sort all this out.”


“If you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site,” he added. “That’s how websites work.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

OKCupid Plays with Love in User Experiments (by Molly Wood, New York Times)

Facebook Tinkers With Users’ Emotions in News Feed Experiment, Stirring Outcry (by Vindu Goel, New York Times)

Dating Site Okcupid Admits to Facebook-Style Psychological Testing on Users (Telegraph)

OKCupid Proudly Admits It Experiments on People All the Time (by Dino Grandoni, Huffington Post)

Misleading Republican Websites Hijack Democratic Campaign Contributions (by Noel Brinkerhoff)

145 Top Web Sites Track Users despite “Do Not Track” Restrictions (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)


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