Why social media wants to manipulate you into getting lucky

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This week, OkCupid revealed they’ve been conducting experiments on their users. While this might sound reminiscent of Facebook’s controversial emotional impact study from last month, that’s entirely the point.

“If you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site,” wrote OkC Co-Founder Christian Rudder on the site’s blog. “That’s how websites work.”

When the details of Facebook’s study were revealed last month, many deemed it “emotional manipulation” and a complete aberration from standard ethical practices. While there is something to be said for holding a higher merit for scientific research (which the Facebook study billed itself as) than for business research (which the Facebook study totally was), OkCupid is making a far larger point.

By opening the doors into their research, OkCupid is actually enlightening us on how much we endow services across the digital sphere when it comes to our personal well-being. When you allow Facebook to be the central repository for your social life, don’t blame their developers for “manipulating” your emotions by simply changing the chronology of your friends’ posts. When your running app reminds you to exercise today, do you blame it for feeling guilty if you don’t?

Much like a running app or a calorie-tracker has interest in making you a better you, OkCupid as a business has the same interests as its users. If you’re looking to enter the dating world and are doing it online, OkC has every reason to help you do that. If you’re more the Tinder type, developers at OKC want to know how to adjust their website to get you that sweet hookup.

In his post, Rudder revealed the details of three “experiments” OkC has conducted. The first, taking place last January, removed all user photos from the site. Dubbed the “Love Is Blind” test, OkC found traffic to the site tanked, but those who did stay had longer, more engaging conversations. Contact information was passed more quickly and users were more likely to respond to first messages, though those cute-meets quickly faded away when the photos were restored. “It was like we’d turned on the bright lights at the bar at midnight,” jokes Rudder.

While fascinating on a water-cooler level, the test also helps OkC determine how best to match you with a date. Simple details—like when and how user photos appear on the site—actually made for a better user experience, but also showed off a degree of shallowness most people assume of dating websites to begin with. This is good for both OkC and its userbase to know, as the former can change layout, while the latter can find a more meaningful match.

The second test is even more revealing. Confirming what social scientists call “The Halo Effect,” OkC hid the text of some its users’ profiles and found it had little impact on how people rated their personalities. A buxom topless blond, for example, netted a 99 percent personality rating even though her profile had absolutely no content other than her profile picture. If you’re classically beautiful, users will assume you’re also very cool with little confirming evidence.

Again, not very shocking news. However, we find once again how much emotional stock users are putting into the basic design features of a website—whether they know it or not. When I tweet something I’m confident is simply hilarious, and it gets no more than a pity-fave, I can’t blame Twitter’s design for not promoting my account to people that share my high-class humoristic sensibilities. It’s my own fault for looking for self-validation from an app on my phone.

Similarly, If you rate someone’s personality based on their picture alone, it seems a difficult twist of logic to blame the website that hid the content of their profile. At the end of the day, you’re a “user” and it is the “product,” leaving you to make the decisions.

In contrast to OkCupid’s R&D activities, the Facebook study seems pretty tame (though the FTC might not think so). In the paper published from the 2012 study, Facebook engineers found a slight correlation between the “negative mood” posts a user sees and the similar posts they actually create by adjusting the rate at which negative posts came into their news feed.

While the ensuing public outrage seemed as if Facebook had violated them personally, those decrying Facebook missed the larger point: This is what the Internet is. Websites—especially social networks—live and die on how well and how frequently they can fine-tune your experience. Experiments like those done by Facebook and those presented here by OkCupid help them make a better experience for you. To litigate these basic actions of business would leave social media fumbling in the dark.

The larger societal impact of this realm of R&D is realizing when an app or website shares your interest. Much in the same way Facebook wants you to connect with your friends (because sharing and connections is what drives their business model), OkCupid needs you meet new people. In order to do exactly what you want OkCupid to do, cold-hearted engineers and programmers are going to be screwing with you.

Every time I go for a run in the morning, for example, RunKeeper gives me “trophies” if I’ve surpassed certain personal records (distance, pace, calories burned, etc). Somewhere in the offices of RunKeeper is a data set showing runners used the app more (and, therefore, exercising more) when they received these silly little notifications and those who did not used it less frequently.

If RunKeeper wants to, say, see how more frequent notifications of my pace during a workout would effect my run, they could start giving them every two minutes instead of every five. I could easily say they’re “violating” my health and “manipulating” my wellness habits.

Whether this affects my workout or not, however, I can’t blame RunKeeper for making me lazier any more than I can blame Netflix for making me lazier. Similarly, you can’t blame OkCupid for making you a shallow, facile mate or Facebook for hanging your emotional state on every post.

These companies want what you want because you make them money. You are a data point in a sea of advertising dollars; all the dating and socializing and exercise is a gimmick aside from that. However, these companies need you to be hooked by these gimmicks which, after all, are what you signed up for. You want Facebook to keep you up-to-date with your friends. You want a running app to help you lose weight and live longer. You want to find your perfect date on OkCupid.

While not charities, they want all those things for you, too, simply so you keep using their service. They turn a profit giving you a better experience and keeping your eyeballs in place. In order to give you what you and they want, however, a little manipulation will always be in order.

Photo via Daft Punk/VIMEO

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.