OKCupid is well known for collecting users’ personal information in order to match them with future partners. Issuing an unspoken but tantalising invitation – “the more you tell us, the more likely it is we can match you with the person of your dreams.”
And it has worked. OKCupid holds a huge amount of information, and as we saw in a blog post earlier in the year, they’re not afraid to use it. The post was on a research experiment they had undertaken and was provokingly called: “We experiment on human beings.” It garnered both ferocious protest and wry comment from the media and from users, many of whom were frustrated and felt like guinea pigs, despite having agreed to user terms which allow this type of data mining.
Now, Christian Rudder, who was the author of that post and is also the CEO of OKCupid, has published a book on the importance and relevance of social media data his and other companies have collected. It’s called; Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking (Crown).
The NY Times interviewed Rudder about his book and his argument that data from the various social media sites we use is an important social resource and should be brought to light.
“I realized I could use the data to examine taboos like race by direct introspection,” Mr. Rudder writes, describing how he tapped into aggregated information about OkCupid members to examine online interactions between white men and black women. “The data was sitting right there on our servers. It was an irresistible social opportunity.”
He’s also interested in the way we interact romantically. Upon collection of data, he uncovered that what we say we want online is often not what we pursue. For example, heterosexual men typically search for partners between 24 and 40 years old. But the women they actually connect with, are rarely over 29 years old. Rudder says, “I see this as a statement of what men imagine they’re supposed to desire,versus what they actually do.”
His book urges companies to share more of their data in the name of social transparency. But any moves towards this practice of transparency would surely have to be regulated. Sharing personal information is a matter of ethics. And although they are protected by a veil of anonymity, many users will not be happy with the exposure.