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Facebook experimented on its users by peppering their home pages with depressing status messages. Users were mad. The FTC is investigating. This is old news.
Or at least it was. On Monday, OkCupid, a freemium online dating site, announced proudly on its blog that it runs experiments on users too. Some of these seem like no big deal (removing all pictures from the site for a few hours), while others seem like a very big deal (lying to users about compatibility ratings to test the effectiveness of their matching algorithm).
And yet, nobody is mad at OkCupid. Why? And where should the line be drawn for research on your company's customers?
OkCupid defended Facebook and itself by pointing out that on the Internet, every user is a science experiment. And this is true -- every site measures user statistics, tweaks buttons to see what engages visitors best, etc.
Of course, tweaking one's site layout is not at all the same as lying to someone about his or her compatibility with a prospective match. (Hey OkCupid, quit playing games with my heart, alright?) Or injecting depressing status messages into users' feeds to toy with their emotions.
Let's start with the biggest difference: the role of the sites in one's life. As others have pointed out, Facebook is, for many, as close to a necessity as a website can possibly be: We use it as a primary means of staying in touch and sharing photos and information with relatives, friends, and the National Security Agency.
Other bloggers have compared it, not altogether unreasonably, to a utility company.
OkCupid? It's a bunch of desperate dudes creeping on women with lines like, "Happy Hour's over, but it's still going strong at my place." It's not some vital site that the general population can't live without. Heck, there are tons of alternatives.
The other big reason? Facebook turned their creepy experiment into a science paper, which makes it even creepier. OkCupid? It's a blog post with pretty graphs, casual lingo, and digs at both Dr. Oz and Jay-Z's unfathomable ongoing commercial viability.
It's basic public relations, or to put it in a more appropriate context for OkCupid, the difference between Ryan Reynolds dropping the aforementioned pickup line and Steve Buscemi saying, "Am I dead, Angel? Cause this must be heaven!" Smooth versus creepy.
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