8 August 2014

You’d think that the blacklash after Facebook’s mood experiment would be enough to stop other websites from manipulating people, yet apparently OKCupid has been at it too, telling incompatible users they’re a match and perfect pairings that they’re bad for each other. I’m told their co-founder even wrote a blog post about it. And whilst he claims that the very nature of the internet means we should resign ourselves to being experimented with, I have to disagree. I think that’s a load of rubbish.

cupidPeople don’t sign up to websites to get experimented on, and trying to match two people who are plainly not compatible is irresponsible. If somebody’s putting their heart on their sleeve and asking for help, the best thing to do is to be supportive, not intentionally risk them having a terrible experience. You have to be pretty brave to go onto a dating site and put yourself out there. You have to be even braver to actually go and meet somebody. OKCupid can’t track the damage that might be caused by what they’re doing either, as they’re not on those dates when they go wrong.

Their co-founder also wrote that experimentation is the only way to find a formula that works and whilst I’d agree that in terms of marketing, experimentation might be the best way, I don’t think this applies to their situation. What they’re doing is about people’s personalities; it’s not about finding out whether or not cookies are useful to help traffic behaviour or analysing user journeys through an ecommerce website.

People have been looking at user habits – the times people will purchase and so on – since the start of ecommerce. When it comes to using data, if you’re attempting to make the user journey better without affecting them, that’s common sense. Doing the opposite and wrecking things to see what happens isn’t. You’d never do what OKCupid did on an ecommerce site. Your traffic and sales would plummet. What’s the justification?

I also think that, by comparing themselves to Facebook, they’re implying that they have a similar level of influence, which borders on the arrogant. Facebook is an anomaly; it’s one of a kind. It’s more about web traffic experience, not about someone picking up the courage to go on a date with someone new. That extends beyond the online experience into real life. It’s not a fair comparison.

Ultimately, when it comes to what you do with data, I think there’s a line you have to be careful not to cross and unfortunately people do abuse it, bombarding users with spam adverts and carrying out experiments that affect people personally. You’ve got to treat your customer base as your greatest asset and that involves showing some respect. Why can’t we just use data to help people instead of messing with their personal lives?


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