Maybe you’re sick of the story, but so am I. Every time I hear people discussing the recent revelation by OKCupid that they’ve been experimenting on users (because people are still discussing it), the arguments annoy me. For example, this morning on the train to work, I was listening to TL;DR, an awesome podcast about the internet from WNYC’s On the Media. On their most recent episode, they interviewed Christian Rudder, founder and president of OKCupid (and also, core band member of Bishop Allen, who I listened to a lot in high school). The show’s hosts were upset that OKC didn’t notify users that they were going to be tested on, known as “informed consent.”
The hosts discuss that informed consent could have been something like an email sent out to users: “We are interested in running an experiment. We can’t tell you what that experiment will be.”
Sure, the consent would then be very informed. How does letting users know they’re going to be experimented on help them? They still have no idea what the experiment is, and upon finding out what the experiment was, they could all the same be retroactively upset or offended by it, but have already legally okay-ed it by using the site after “being informed.” And it definitely doesn’t help the validity of the experiment, since when people know they’re being experimented on, they act differently, in ways that the subjects themselves might not realize.
And if a website isn’t informing their users of the experiment beforehand (as long as they reveal the process, intentions, and results afterwards), there is still an unwritten code of conduct. (Yes, I know it’s hard to fathom in today’s world, but some codes and rules can still be unwritten.) The website knows if they do something damaging or harmful, if they run experiments that end up ruining lives, they will be liable, especially since the subjects had no choice in what they were getting into. These experiments, then, are rarely ever actually detrimental to anyone. People just like to get upset at things. (I admit: like me, right now.) Welcome to the internet.