Just a few weeks after we learned that in 2012, Facebook had manipulated the environment of 700,000 of its users as part of an experiment on “emotional contagion,” now it turns out that the popular dating site OKCupid was playing fast and loose with heart strings. Profile pictures were obscured, texts were hidden, and in some cases compatibility scores so that a 30 percent was switched to 90 percent. Among the findings: users were slightly more likely to send a message to those who were understood to be more compatible with them. (D’uh.) The company did inform affected users after the experiment was over.
In response to criticism, the company president responded with the distinctly unromantic caveat emptor defense: “If you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site.” Now that’s a guy I’d want to run my love life.
OKCupid’s president also noted that experiments like this can make the site more effective for its users. Fair enough. But as others have pointed out, there are ways to do that that don’t involve deception. Ethical questions about online experiments were raised by the Facebook incident, but he OK Cupid case brings up another one.
Internet-based social networking can be a wonderful resource for lonely people. I’ve been thinking about this a lot while writing a book about my dad, the psychiatrist J.L. Moreno, who founded social network analysis in the early 1930s. Exactly 80 years before the OKCupid study he estimated that there were about ten million to fifteen million socially and emotionally isolated people in the country. And of course at that time there were less than half the number of Americans that there are now.
My father argued that their suffering, and that of the communities they affect, could be treated by addressing their loneliness, and he proposed massive inter-personal choice exercises and social maps to do that. In 1933 he told The New York Times that he had “completed plans to chart a map of the psychological geography of New York City.” Such a map never materialized, but a small sociometric study was conducted with fifty-two individuals between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five in New York City. It turned out that 12.2 percent of the men and 13 percent of the women were unchosen by others in their neighborhood. Granted that romance isn’t always required to stem social isolation, but it surely can play an important role in a fully integrated human life.
A trusted media-based social networking system can be a boon for some of the lovelorn. But Cupid needs to be a straight shooter.