OkCupid’s Co-Founder Probably Wouldn’t Agree to the Experiments OkCupid Runs on Its Users

You may have heard that OkCupid sometimes lied about potential matches’ algorithmic compatibility for the sake of understanding its users. You may have also read its co-founder and president Christian Rudder’s explanation on OkCupid’s blog in which he dismisses concerns about the practice. “That’s how websites work,” he patronizingly tells us.

What you probably haven’t read yet is that Rudder himself would be reluctant to be a subject in one of these studies. In his forthcoming book Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking, which I read (a reviewer’s copy) for a September HBR article on privacy and data collection, Rudder writes that “Tech loves to push boundaries, and the boundaries keep giving. Software has become almost aggressively invasive.”

He also notes that he’s not really into it. Why?

“I myself know the value of privacy,” he writes. “That’s part of the reason I’m not a big social media user, frankly.”

That quote points to what marketers might call an authenticity problem. He sounds like a liquor baron who says, “I never touch the stuff.”

Rudder’s follow-up blog post reads like the book, actually. It has the same giddy enthusiasm (title: “We Experiment on Human Beings!”) and shows off the same irresistible correlations and trends he’s dug up in OkCupid data. The data can be fascinating, and the visualizations are good. I didn’t dislike his book, even though I mostly gave up on it, and on Rudder by the end. He clearly loves data science and has charted some neat stuff. But he’s also divorced from the world he’s analyzing. In fact he’s actively avoiding it. At various points in the book, he notes that in addition to avoiding social media, he’s never been on an online date, and “Tweeting embarrasses me.”

And on our decisions to cede our privacy, he writes “Not to confuse the issue here, but many people, men and women, trade on privacy when they walk out the door in the evening, giving it away, via a hemline or a snug fit, for attention.”

Passages like that leave you convinced that Rudder doesn’t understand privacy at all. He spends a few paragraphs explaining how he made his data anonymous (a good thing). But it reads as if he’s celebrating that, as if anonymity equals privacy. As if doing experiments on people without their consent, deceiving your customers, is just fine so long as it generates interesting results. “I never wanted to connect the data back to individuals, of course,” he writes. “My goal was to connect it back to everyone. That’s the value I see in the data and therefore in the privacy lost in its existence: what we can learn.”

Rudder seems to think that privacy is about the outputs: because he sanitizes data, and because he has a loftier goal, it’s fine to do whatever. We can see no one got hurt, so it must be okay. He writes: “The fundamental question in any discussion of privacy is the trade-off—what you get for losing it.” Note the verb there, lose, which is something that happens to you not something controlled by you.

That’s what he’s missing. Privacy is about the inputs. The better sentence would have been “The fundamental question in any discussion of privacy is whether or not you, the individual, have been given the choice to selectively reveal what you want about yourself.”

In fairness, in the book Rudder eventually does raise all of the important privacy issues surrounding data collection and hints at the insidious nature of what’s happening. He largely blames users’ “blasé” attitude for allowing it to happen. He’s not entirely wrong.

But raising issues and thinking about them critically are two different things, and he falls down on the latter. He floats regulation as a possible solution then half-heartedly dismisses it—“[it] will be outdated before the ink is dry.” Then he opts out of thinking too hard about the problem. “As far as balancing the potential good with the bad, I wish I could propose a way forward. But to be honest I don’t see a simple solution.” And if it’s not easy, why even try?

Should OkCupid be worried about a backlash? Probably not. When Rudder wrote his in-your-face blog post, he was probably thinking about something else he wrote in his book: “Whenever Facebook updates its Terms of Service to extend their reach deeper into our data, we rage in circles for a day, then are on the site the next, like so many provoked bees, who, finding no one to sting, have nowhere to go but back to the hive.”

Your move, consumers.

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