NEW YORK— Think you’re in control? Think again.
This week, OKCupid became the latest company to admit that it has manipulated customer data to see how users of its dating service would react to one another. The New York-based Internet company’s revelation follows news earlier this month that Facebook let researchers change news feeds to see how it would affect users’ moods. The fact is, big companies use customers as unwitting guinea pigs all the time —online and in the real world.
OKCupid’s claim, that its research was aimed at improving its services, is common. But some find that manipulating situations in order to study consumer behavior without consent raises troubling privacy concerns.
“Every company is trying to influence consumers to purchase their product or feel a particular way about their company,” said Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. “The question is, when is it manipulation, when consumers are in some ways tricked, and when is it just influence?”
In a blog post on Monday OKCupid founder Christian Rudder detailed the experimentation: The company removed text or photos from profiles and in some cases told people they were a 90 percent match with another date-seeker instead of a 30 percent match. Rudder said the results are being used to improve the sites’ algorithms.
“If you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site,” Rudder wrote. “That’s how websites work.”
During one week in January 2012, Facebook let researchers manipulate 689,000 users’ news feeds to study how the changes affected their moods.
The use of “big data” and other ways to study consumers are likely to get more pervasive. The key to conducting studies is transparency, said marketing expert Allen Adamson, managing director of branding firm Landor Associates.