Growing up in the early 2000s, my friends and I relied heavily on MSN and our Motorola Razrs for communication and flirtation.
However, most of our flirting took place in person – in school hallways, on the bus, in after school club meetings. Six years ago, if someone was interested in finding a relationship, I would have given them the advice of joining student government or Spanish club; not only could you get a nice resume builder, but you could also spend time with well-motivated individuals of the opposite sex (looking back, it’s amazing that I dated anyone).
The connections and relationships that took me weeks of 45-minute student government meetings to establish are now happening almost instantaneously online, with the help of apps like Tinder and OkCupid. While these “dating” devices sometimes seem to only be a platform for narcissistic users wanting to show off their selfies to the world, or a platform propagating a user’s search for someone to hook-up with under the guise of “looking for a relationship,” there’s quite a bit more going on.
Behind the “dating site” front of OkCupid, for example, is a data-mining system that has collected information on human interactions. President of OkCupid Christian Rudder published his findings in a provocative blog post entitled, “We Experiment on Human Beings!” causing much uproar over the flippant way he unveiled to the masses that he was treating OkCupid users like guinea pigs.
OkCupid isn’t the only prominent site to bear the brunt of public disapproval and anger. Over the summer, Facebook revealed that in January 2012 it manipulated the newsfeeds of approximately 700,000 randomly selected users in order to perform a psychological study about how emotions spread on social media. Facebook experimenters would control the number of positive or negative posts a user saw, then record what type of post (positive or negative) the user would type, in order to find out if positiveness or negativity were contagious on the social network.
In the cases of OkCupid and Facebook, the experiments did nothing to benefit the user, which differs from the experiments search engines do in order to optimize search results for consumers. Essentially, people are just being used in order to satisfy the site creator’s curiosity.
People tend to think the only thing they need to fear when using the internet is the collection and aggregation of their own personal information, which can then be sold to advertising agencies. While the data-mining and analyzing techniques in this sense are scary (seeing perfectly-targeted ads pop up on Google and Facebook is startling), being the unwilling subjects of elaborate social experiments is often overlooked when it comes to internet usage.
Basically, every internet user is the subject of a number of experiments on any site any time. Although users haven’t necessarily given their explicit permission to be tested on, many sites (including OkCupid and Facebook) have argued that by agreeing to their terms of services, individuals have indeed consented. For example, this data mining on OkCupid is arguably legal because of their user policies, one of which reads, “[We may use information we collect about you to] perform research and analysis about your use of, or interest in, our products, services, or content, or the products, services or content offered by others.”
Regardless of this previous user approval, it’s arguable that the experimentation on social media and dating sites (along with any other site internet-wide) is crossing ethical boundaries. Currently, the U.S. government, at Sen. Mark R. Warner’s, D-Virginia, urging, is looking into the Facebook fiasco, specifically if oversight should be applied in further experiments of the like. It’s imperative to define what exactly a consumer’s right to privacy is on social networks, dating sites and the internet in general.
Although OkCupid’s transparency was definitely not a bad thing, it did nothing to relieve the mounting anxiety of a society over the use of data online. Until a consensus is reached about what should be done in governing online privacy, we’re all going to continue being some internet site’s lab rats.
Briana Reilly ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in journalism and international studies.