Tuesday, July 29, 2014

No, It’s Not OK Cupid

Popular dating Website OkCupid revealed today it has been perpetrating a fraud on its users. Until now, OkCupid stood apart from its rivals because of its unique matching algorithm based on users’ answers to questions posed by other users. The seemingly innocuous questions actually revealed a great deal about the individual, depending on how he or she answered them. The answers were weighted, based on their importance to the user reviewing them. They were then scored into percentiles, and users were categorized by percentage as “matches”, “friends”, and “enemies”. Thus, two individuals with a high match percentage would likely share similar values, while someone with a high enemy percentage had probably given the wrong answer to questions the user considered important. The algorithm served to weed out incompatible potential dates.

Or so OkCupid users thought. Christian Rudder, OkCupid’s president, publicly bragged that the dating Website had been experimenting on its users. Apparently, Rudder believes his paying customers are little more than lab rats who exists only for his amusement. He proudly boasted the OkCupid staff hides some of its users’ profile text and photos, and tells some users they have scored highly, when in reality, the opposite is true. Rudder wrote: “But guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how Websites work.”

Um, no Christian. That’s not how Websites work. Nor is it how legitimate businesses work. That’s how lying, fraudulent, unethical scumbags work. It’s called deception, as in the sort of unlawful practices that the Federal Trade Commission, under Section 5 of the FTC Act, declares to be unfair or deceptive acts or practices. Also, by changing users’ personal information on their profiles, OkCupid has raised some data protection issues. I predict a class-action lawsuit in the offing. As an attorney, my first question would be, Does OkCupid employ any lawyers on its staff?

I’m not sure which amazes me more: Rudder’s betrayal of his customers or his utter chutzpah (shameless audacity) in blogging about what he’s done. “We told users something that wasn’t true. I’m definitely not hiding from that fact,” The New York Times quoted Rudder. From a business standpoint, it’s mind-boggling. He has taken his company’s main selling point – the proprietary compatibility algorithm – and destroyed its credibility. It’s like expecting customers to go to a gas station after it has bragged about filling half its tanks with water instead of gasoline. How likely are you to go back to fill up your tank at that station? Not only has OkCupid killed the goose that laid the golden egg, but it also has risked, or jettisoned, the trust its users had placed in it. Business is about a relationship between a seller of a good or service and a customer, and the crux of that relationship is mutual trust. That’s Business 101. As an MBA, my first question would be, Does anyone on OkCupid’s staff have a business degree? Or did they all major in monkey business?

In his blog post, entitled “We Experiments on Human Beings,” Rudder wrote, “OkCupid doesn’t really know what it’s doing.” That may be the first honest thing he’s said. But Rudder goes on in an attempt to justify his actions; he contends experimenting on humans without their consent is necessary for scientific advancement. Didn’t Dr. Josef Mengele make that same argument 60 years ago?

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