My Response to OkCupid’s Defense of Social Experimentation
Posted on September 7, 2014
In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal “Review” section, Christian Rudder, president and one of the founders of OkCupid, wrote an article titled “When Websites Spy on Private Lives,” where the Harvard math grad discusses the experiments he runs on the data generated from OkCupid. It’s an incredibly engaging read that does two things: 1. Creates a bunch of buzz about his new book “Dataclysm” and 2. complicates how data mining and collecting private information from the traces we leave on the Internet should be perceived. His article was in response to the backlash he received when he published a post on OkCupid’s company blog outlining some of the experiments his site has been conducting. The title of the blog post: “We Experiment on Human Beings!”
Basically, in the article, Rudder is trying to, clearly, defend his actions, promote his book, and cause trouble, but he’s also posing a question that is absolutely fundamental to our contemporary lives: Is mining the data of our personal information a benefit to society?
To sum it up, Rudder is arguing that his company is not just benefiting from the mining of consumer data; the world is too. “Websites are amassing information that holds enormous social potential,” Rudder writes. “The data our users generate helps companies improve their sites and make money; that’s a story that most people know. But that same data could also unlock new ways of understanding society and new kinds of science.”
It’s hard to argue with Rudder that mining data can help people understand society, but it’s also hard to take that argument in concert with how that data benefits his company financially. As Rudder illustrates in the experiments on the people who are searching companionship and love on his site, the data is able to help him better understand what his users are looking for in relationships. He can improve his business. But strangely, the experiments helped point out that users are more likely to connect with other users if the site tells them they are compatible even if they’re not. In a sense, his experiment showed that users on OkCupid wanted to be told who is a companion, and their algorithm was not nearly as important as persuasion.
Rudder’s tone comes across like a mad-scientist entrepreneur who thinks he’s figured out how to crack social problems by mining data, and while he seems a little gruff and inappropriate, he does illustrate how OkCupid’s experiments can lead to interesting social behavior, because he can examine behavior from users when these users think no one is watching, even though Rudder clearly is. For example, in the blog post on experiments, he learns that there is some racism happening in the online dating world. The New York Times pulled this from Rudder’s new book:
“As a group, for instance, Latino men rated Latinas as 13 percent more attractive than the average for the site, while they rated African-American women 25 percent less attractive. In fact, Mr. Rudder reports, black women on the site receive about 25 percent fewer first messages than other women do. For Mr. Rudder, these numbers unequivocally tell a story of racism.”
Okay, so you learned that we’re racist from our data. No shit.
Yes, clearly we can learn a lot about social behavior from the traces we leave behind on the Internet, from our clicks, from the content of our messages (even though you don’t need to mine the content of website to find racism still exists), but I’m not sure that I gave anyone permission to use me in a social experiment. In fact, I don’t think Rudder has the right to conduct social experiments. Sure, I understand what he’s trying to accomplish. He’s trying to argue that the collection of the content of messages, our clicks, our responses to other personalities online, when collected and analyzed will inform the world on human behavior; but it will also fuel his company. It also still feels like a major injustice to privacy. I just imagine Rudder sitting on the hill in his evil mansion, trying to find the thread that runs through all of humanity to figure us out. This is a strange, social engineering conceit that makes me uncomfortable.
I see the benefits of using my data, but what I think is the problem is that many people don’t really understand the lengths our information is used for social experimentation, targeted marketing, etc. Sure, the data is said to be collected anonymously and swirled around in some metaphorical vat of binary code or whatever bullshit they’re selling, but that data is me in there. I might only be a small portion of that data, but it’s me. And I believe my identity isn’t something you should just be able to trade and sell like a commodity.
But here is where things get complicated for me. I do see the benefit of collection of data from smart phones for smart cities. For example, if there was a city-run system where data could be collected and communicated with other parts of the city and DOT, then traffic could be handled differently. The collection of data from our homes could inform better environmental practices. There are benefits to collecting data and analyzing from a health perspective, too. Think about how Big Data could help the Ebola crisis? And perhaps I would be comfortable with this type of data collection if it was anonymous.
(What does anonymous collection of data actually mean? Who is out there ensuring that it is anonymous?)
The truth is that now we know how much our browsing history, our clicks, our time spent on a page can inform others about our behavior, well, I think it’s just time that we start seeing our computers, our smart phones, as an extension of our mind. We have the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. For example, our conscious mind is our browsing behavior, but the information mined from our data can provide insight into our subconscious mind. I don’t want marketing companies knowing more about my identity than a psychologist. I don’t want the Christian Rudders of the world sifting through the collected mind of America to try and better understand who we are. I don’t want him to rationalize data collection and privacy invasion by hiding behind social experimentation. I don’t want dating services, Google, Facebook, etc, to rationalize their creepy experiments without our consent by hiding behind the phrase: “We’re gaining a deeper understanding of humanity.” I want transparency.
If making society a better place through understanding is a company’s goal, then they should say it up front. Don’t hide behind terms and agreements. Be up front with people. Make that a part of your business. Be transparent.
In reality, I do think we can learn a lot about humanity through Big Data, but that power in the wrong hands scares me. The power to manipulate countless people through a change to a website is just a bit bizarre — almost Dr. Moreau-like. I don’t have an answer to the privacy debate. In fact, I feel that we’re already down a huge rabbit hole, and I have very little control over the outcome of how privacy will be defined in the 21st century, but I just wanted to stand up and say, slow down. My mind is not for you to experiment with. And neither is my browsing history.