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4 reasons not to be angry at OkCupid’s experiments

September 11, 2014
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It’s out there, it’s been out there for some time the wonders that Big Data can do. We all wowed at it and corporations have been using it to make big bucks and we were ok with that. But now, we are slowly realizing that the source of that big buck is our privacy!

OkCupid’s experiments on its users has created such an outrage in the industry. Both users and corporations are frowning at it (If companies aren’t right now, they should) and people have fallen into deep thoughts.

Here are 4 reasons why we shouldn’t hate OkCupid’s experiments and its decision to publish the results.

1. Reality Check

Truth is, we all are living in a world, where the line between private and not-private information is growing thinner by the second. In today’s world you cannot use a digital device without leaving some kind of information about yourself out there. This so called “Digital Footprint” is always there whether you realize it or not and there are people who have this information of yours with them. You already knew that. Everybody knows that!

When OkCupid released the results of their experiments in a blogpost, the users were outraged and there was a sudden talk of “ethics” in the industry. This also brought back the memories of facebook’s experiment which Facebook tried to defend using its terms and conditions policy.

Truth is, whether you know it or not, your information is used against you, to manipulate you into buying things that you don’t need or want, to decide for you where you should go on the next holiday and thanks to OkCupid it is now proven that you can be tricked into choosing a life partner!

With technology which can create databases of individual genetic information, imagine just what insurance companies can do if they can get their hands on your gene makeup and whatever you are imagining right now, it’s not going to be close to what they are going to do.

While this has been out there for a while, OkCupid's experiments has put it back on the table.

2. Knowledge is not a sin

One of the strongest oppositions to Facebook’s and OkCupid’s experiments involves “toying with human emotions without their knowledge” argument.

While people might find it offending to find out that they have been manipulated emotionally, OkCupid’s research actually gives us a huge insight into our thinking and behavioural patterns. Instead of focusing on what’s been done, we might do well to think about how we can overcome the inherent irrationalities to make better choices. I mean, how shallow and gullible are we to ignore the entire personality text and judge someone based on their image. Isn’t that something we want to know about ourselves? We don’t need to be offended as much because OkCupid didn’t set out to manipulate John or Jane but the experiment was conducted on random samples using anonymized data.

Besides, OkCupid is not the first nor is it part of a special elite group which is conducting such experiments. They’re happening everywhere, places where the user gave his data (1st party data), places where he agreed to share his data from somewhere (2nd party data) and places where this data is stolen (3rd party). We don’t know what else is being done, we cannot know what can be done. Which brings me to the third reason.

3. Government Role

While I believe that experiments such as these are not entirely bad, this incident should raise the concern of what all is happening that we don’t know about. OkCupid definitely made this mainstream, which is the reason why I believe corporations should be hating it!

I mean, the only reason we are aware of facebook’s or OkCupid’s experiments is because they chose to make those results public. I cannot help but wonder What else are organizations doing with god knows what type of personal data that we don’t know about because they chose to keep it “off public”?

We need government intervention in creating strict laws that regulate what kind of data can and cannot be collected in different domains (social networking, travel websites, e-commerce sites, dating services etc.,) and how it can be used, whether offline or online and then public should be made aware of what type of information is ok for them to provide to these entities and through which channel. There’s also the data security issue intertwined into this whole mess.

To cite an example, There was this delivery guy from one of the major ecommerce sites who came to deliver my t-shirt and he wanted to know my SSN or PAN or Passport ID because he was asked to do so. I couldn’t for the life of me fathom why I would want to share such personal information with an e-commerce site? And that too through a delivery guy!

But there are people who do that because they don’t know how valuable this information is and how dangerous it is to hand it out like that! It is the Government’s duty, besides being a moral responsibility to create awareness among the general public as this in many ways can also lead to issues related to public safety.

4. Understanding Ourselves

Christian Rudder, CEO of OkCupid has made it pretty clear how much we can learn about Human minds using the internet. But wait, why should we believe him? For all we know, he’s just trying to justify OkCupid’s experiments or worse, he’s being a proponent of such experiments on a large scale. I’ve graduated with a major in biology with significant project work in behavioural and clinical psychology.

Believe me when I say that no matter how well a behavioural psychology related experiment is designed, it can never create the ideal conditions for the results to be infallible (One reason why theories are always flying across the rooms of so many schools of thoughts!). Most of what we know about human behaviour is either in dispute with other findings or is yet to be in dispute with findings yet to be made.

Internet is the actual solution to this problem with some tiny problems of its own but overall, Rudder is not kidding about how experiments on Internet users over internet can help us accelerate our understanding of human behaviour and our progress as a human race. Google using search queries was able to understand how intolerant as a society, America is towards homosexuality. I’d call that a win for all of us.

Technology is moving faster than we know because a large portion of it is kept from us and sometimes not everyone of us is equipped enough to understand its ramifications.

Here’s the thing. Big Data is here to stay! It will evolve but it’s not going to go extinct. Anyone having an access to internet can now do Big Data analytics. We should make peace with that and adapt to it while finding ways to protecting our privacy and individuality.


About the Author

Self proclaimed Rationalist, a free thinker, an avid follower of everything that is Data and a graduate from BITS Pilani. You will find Sumanth pondering over the problems of universe when he's not busy being a Data driven Digital Marketer.


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