In The News

Why dating site OKCupid performed secret experiments on its users

Christian Rudder
A conversation with Christian Rudder Taylor Glascock, Blue Sky/April 21, 2015 “There is no natural algorithm to match one person to another,” Rudder said. “We literally sat around and made it up. And we keep making up more ways to do it.”

Online dating site OKCupid’s controversial experiments with users could help spur discussion about what happens with personal data, company co-founder Christian Rudder said at a Chicago event Tuesday.
In a blog post last summer, Rudder discussed several experiments, unbeknownst to users, that included the site intentionally suggesting bad matches to see how people would behave.

The site wanted to make sure its algorithm established the best matches, and that required testing, Rudder said during a “Data, Democracy and the Human Story” program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The Illinois Humanities Council and the Smart Chicago Collaborative presented the program.

“We wanted to make sure fundamentally the thing our site is based on actually worked,” Rudder said.

Rudder said various patterns go into match-making. They include common interests, mutual recent breakups and the idea that opposites attract.

“We can’t know which of these patterns might be the best unless we test them against one another,” Rudder said. “We owed it to our users to check out the algorithm program.”

Rudder’s blog post about the experiments prompted media backlash, yet he said no users involved in the intentionally unfavorable matches complained to OKCupid.

“The public is way more savvy than the people pontificating on their behalf give them credit for,” he said.

Rudder’s blog post also referenced a 2013 OKCupid experiment in which the site removed members’ profile pictures for seven hours to promote a mobile app called Crazy Blind Date. Though the number of new conversations dropped, a higher rate of messages got replies, according to his book, “Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking).”

Audience attending A Conversation with Christian Rudder
A conversation with Christian Rudder Taylor Glascock, Blue Sky/April 21, 2015 Rudder told the audience he’s not a big cheerleader for the internet. “It’s definitely a bummer people spend so much time on their phones and computers. I do it too. I hate it,”

And 24 percent of the pairs, about twice the number expected, exchanged contact information before photos were restored, the book says. Yet many of those conversations screeched to a halt when the photos reappeared.

“Love is not blind, everyone,” Rudder said Tuesday. “At least online.”

Rudder’s “We experiment on human beings!” blog post appeared after Facebook came under criticism for manipulating the news feeds of some users to test how emotions spread through social media.

Rudder said he thinks people in the future will opt out of providing so much information about themselves.

“As people fully understand how an algorithm works, they can make more informed decisions whether to partake of it or not,” he said. “That’s kind of the silver lining in all the controversy. People did stop to think about what’s going on and ask questions, and that was good.”

Rudder said the site since 2011 has provided data to universities for their research projects.

Among insights he shared Tuesday were that women on the site were attracted to men their own age while men ages 20 to 50 generally were attracted to 20-somethings.

Rudder said OKCupid has developed an application program interface, or API, to allow access to some such information, but he said the company has no plans to release it soon.

“We think people will lose their minds if we make it public,” Rudder said. “There’s a lot of controversy when websites do things like that.”

He said OKCupid employees don’t look at individual profiles and that the site doesn’t retain credit card information or know the real names of users.

Tristan Espinoza and Michele Weldon with mic
A conversation with Christian Rudder Taylor Glascock, Blue Sky/April 21, 2015 Tristan Espinoza, a computer programming major at SAIC, poses a question.

“The data we look at is the data of people doing things,” he said. “There isn’t this kind of data grab that people think is happening. When we’re doing any analysis, we’re asking what women are into, what are older guys into, who women are clicking on.”

Though companies such as Facebook, Google and OKCupid say they collect data to better understand people’s use of these services, not all users understand how that works and whether they should opt out from sharing, Rudder said.

“As people fully understand how an algorithm works, a search algorithm whether it’s Google’s or Facebook’s or ours, they can make a more informed decision whether to partake in it or not and whether to do incognito mode,” Rudder said.

He said he takes comfort in his site as a tool to get more people meeting face to face.

“One thing I like is the objective to get the person off the computer and dating in person,” Rudder said.