OkCupid and the Art of Control

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, so I feel somewhat obligated to talk about online dating. We are living in a golden age of online dating, with a frankly staggering number and variety of sites to choose from. Dating for Christians, dating based on music, dating for people over 50, dating for Russian women seeking Western men (yes, really), the list goes on. Furthermore, the proliferation of smartphones has led to a wellspring of dating apps, most notably Tinder, providing novel approaches to online dating and a new lexicon based on “swiping.” Rather than focus on some glaring problem with online dating, however, I want to focus on what I think they do right. Dating sites present an interesting middle ground in a lot of areas, and I think there are lessons to be learned for how to approach privacy in our era of ubiquitous data collection.

Despite online dating seeming like a hotbed for privacy issues, I actually don’t have too much to say as far as major concerns go. Surprisingly enough, I think the models they have selected work pretty well, and I am unaware of any major security breaches (although some people brag of being able to “hack” the algorithms). Privacy concerns, after all, are heavily influenced by perspective, and dating sites are assumed to require private information. As such, people seem more willing to divulge these private details about their lives, and since they choose which details to tell and how to tell them, there is a greater sense of trust with online dating than with more mainstream social media. If privacy is control over information about ourselves, users of online dating sites are in control, even if the information becomes less private.


But if privacy is control over information about ourselves, what exactly does “control” mean? The most straightforward way to interpret “control” would be the ability to determine who has access to information. This is privacy by secrecy; only I know the secret, so I have complete control over who I choose to tell that secret. Naturally, however, this breaks down rather quickly, as once you tell even one other person that secret, your control is compromised. But this is the most common understanding of privacy, and it relies in large part on a sense of trust with those we share information with. Yet this view of privacy is fairly narrow, and doesn’t make much sense when applied to the majority of modern information sharing, where the trust wouldn’t be with people but with corporations.

Rather, I think we should focus on privacy as autonomy with regard to information, rather than an absolute ability to control it. We want for it to be our decision to disclose information; it is less about control than it is about feeling in control. When we control the disclosure we are able to frame the information, to provide context, present rationales, or even be the first to poke fun at it. We are empowered by a sense of self-determination, and this shapes both our own perspective on the information and the perspective of the public. The example that comes to mind is the response of Jennifer Lawrence after the nude celebrity photo leak: she decided to do her own nude photo shoot, taking back control of the information that had been shared without her consent. Indeed just imagine how different the response would have been if she had serendipitously chosen to release the hacked photos immediately prior to the event. In one instance it was called a sex crime, in the other, an act of empowerment. But the content was identical.

It is with this notion of control that I think online dating sites have found the best way handle user’s private information: give them as much control as possible. For example: sex and gender. Sex and gender are two extremely important pieces of information for any successful dating website, yet they are also often extremely complicated and private facets of our lives. So to counter this difficulty, dating sites employ what strikes many as an unnecessarily detailed and nuanced list of options for both gender and sex, along with a space to elaborate on what you mean and why. With this detail comes a degree of comfort, both because it recognizes the marginalized as part of the spectrum, and because the degree of customization embraces this internal need for control over information about ourselves. I suspect humans have an inherent dislike of being categorized — to have assumptions and presuppositions thrust upon us based on poor identifiers — and giving users extensive options, including a chance to elaborate, eases the disclosure of what would normally be sensitive information.

Privacy laws, when they attempt to address autonomy, typically do so through notice and consent. This essentially refers to privacy agreements, where the company informs you of how it uses data, simplified as much as possible, and asks you to consent. While facially innocuous, I think this is typically an unhelpful practice, as consent is usually requested in bulk, and as a requirement to actually use the product or service. When given the options of consenting to the Apple terms and conditions or not being able to use your phone, most people consent. Despite nominally respecting autonomy, I don’t think this model does so in a meaningful way.

An approach that I think better incorporates privacy as a reflection of autonomy is to simply provide as much control as possible to the users. While companies obviously cannot comply with every user’s demands, incorporating a large degree of customization into the user experience will allow the users to retain a sense of autonomy. This is a lesson that Facebook has been learning largely by trial and error, specifically with targeted advertisements. While Facebook is unlikely to completely remove advertising altogether, they have incorporated a much greater degree of personalization into what ads you do and don’t see. Rather than relying purely on their targeting algorithms, Facebook now lets you select ads you don’t like, ads you do like, and to specify why. Users still have to put up with ads, but now they do so with a sense of autonomy.

And perhaps most ironically, allowing for individual customization is better for Facebook as well. By giving users some control over the ads they see, Facebook is empowered to better target advertisements for that particular user. If Facebook gives users a chance to view and update the data that is collected about them, they are ensuring that the data is more accurate and representative. More accurate advertising means greater effectiveness, greater revenue, and greater customer satisfaction, and allowing users to take a more active role in the in the business-customer relationship improves user trust and will likely solidify their sense of loyalty with that brand.

Now an obvious critique of this approach is that it suggests the death of privacy through trivial choices. Give users a modicum of input and they will willingly acquiesce to whatever maniacal scheming Corporate America can contrive. Naturally I think this is alarmist and reductive, but the point isn’t lost. Autonomy is not the extent of privacy, and even if it were, surely this would include the autonomy to not share information at all. Jennifer Lawrence may have reasserted her autonomy with her own photo shoot, but I suspect she would have preferred to not have needed to do so. There are undoubtedly more substantive privacy harms that must be monitored and managed. Which brings me to my next point . . .


The other quality about online dating that I like is that it, almost unwittingly, provides excellent transparency, at least as far as the user is concerned. Much like with autonomy, I suspect that user distrust of corporate data practices stems not from the activity itself, but from their lack of understanding of it. Exactly what data is collected, and more importantly, why it is collected, is something that is shrouded in mystery for the common user. Even when companies go out of their way to explain what they do and why, it is often lost on the common user, who may not have the technical know-how nor the impetus to learn why data collection is occurring.

This problem of communicating the purpose of data collection is easily avoided in online dating, simply because users understand that the system needs their private data to function. The entire appeal of online dating is that we provide it with our intimate details so that it can match us with other people with whom we are likely to be compatible. One presumably could create a profile with no private information, but this would somewhat defeat the point of online dating. We want to share our private details with the site because we are looking for the type of person we would share our private lives with, and we don’t harbor the same distrust with dating sites because we understand why they need this data: it is for our benefit.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to come up with a way to apply this system of transparency to other types of data collection. Online dating draws upon our collective understanding of relationships to justify its rather profound data collection. It doesn’t need to explain why data on, say, our sexual orientation is important; we understand intuitively that those details are vital if it is to find appropriate matches. But companies cannot rely on this collective intuition generally, because most corporate data usage is less easily understood by the general public, and it often doesn’t appear to be directly for the user’s benefit.

However I still think transparency is vital, especially given the practical and legal difficulties in restricting data collection. And while transparency to monitor abuses is something I think should be left to the government and public interest groups, transparency with the user is still important to further this sense of autonomy and trust. But rather than attempt to explain the nuances, I think the important element is to identify what types of information are being collected, and to emphasize that the information is being used for the user’s benefit. There are other ways to ingratiate with the user as well, such as an option to “opt out,” to restrict specific data sharing, or to otherwise micromanage how your personal data is handled. And while I’m less convinced that these are particularly useful, they still emphasize the importance of user interaction as a means of respecting privacy.


As a final point, I want to discuss how dating sites manage internet identity, something I discussed in my first post on this blog. Unlike your Facebook profile, which is entirely under your control, and your Acxiom profile, which is mostly out of your control, online dating tries to do both. For example, OkCupid allows you to select your profile picture, (where you look your best, no doubt), describe yourself, provide a list of your own interests, etc. Basically, OkCupid gives you control over the face that you will be presenting to their online dating world. But behind the scenes, OkCupid also tries to determine “the real you,” and thus better select matches. It does this by asking targeted questions, ranging from broad personality traits like “are you a morning person” to more factual questions like “identify the next number in this sequence . . .” These questions can drive at your foundational beliefs, but also sometimes reveal intelligence, neuroticism, openness, and a host of other intangibles. By crafting what I would call an objective profile, online dating is able to learn who you are better than you may even know yourself, and thereby better determine who to pair you with.

I like this spin on internet identity because it embraces our desire for personal autonomy while managing the practical realities of dealing with large data sets. We let OkCupid do the majority of the legwork, sorting a group of potentially thousands of matches down to a manageable number, wherein we can interact with their self-selected identity. Both the objective and subjective identities are important and meaningful, but we still want our human interactions to be driven by the subjective. With objectivity comes a risk of decontextualization, where individual pieces of data may be given disproportionate weight, or may be stripped of necessary background information. We all have photos where we blinked, or conversations where we misspoke; objectively, these are a part of us. But what we should emphasize is the identity others choose to put forward, both because that is likely a better representation of who they really are and because that is the identity we want others to emphasize for ourselves.

I originally had subheadings mimicking the sayings on Sweethearts, but without the context of the candy heart they just came across as creepy. Happy Valentine’s Day!


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