In July, the online matchmaking service OKCupid said it purposely manipulates data to “improve [its] matchmaking system and help users find love.” One of the site’s founders, Christian Rudder, explained it this way: “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.” In OKCupid’s case, the experimentation is somewhat justified by the reasoning behind it. As the article (linked above) describes them, the experiments seemed relatively harmless and may actually have helped people connect who normally wouldn’t have.
It’s the experiments like Facebook’s infamous news feed experiment, though, that call into question a business’s ethics. In that particular experiment, the news feeds of random users were manipulated so that some users only saw positive posts while others only saw negative posts. The experiment proved that those who saw positive posts were more likely to write something positive themselves, while those who saw negative posts were more likely to write negative ones. Facebook claimed that these news feed experiments were perpetrated in order to help improve the news feed feature, but many emotionally-manipulated users did not find this explanation to be adequate.
With all the data and web analytics tools available to businesses today, such experiments will likely become even more common than they already are. Even now, companies like AT&T have experiments in the works that may violate its users’ privacy in order to make more sales. How far are companies willing to go? And how will customers react when they realize they’re being experimented upon? Maybe the Data Science team at Facebook can answer that one for you.
PriSim Business War Games Inc. runs and designs customized business simulations that teach decision-makers about business, strategy, finance, and leadership.