Facebook, OKCupid, and Applied Social Science

The chief data scientist at OKCupid, Christian Rudder, has published a response of sorts to recent news about Facebook experimenting on its users.  The response is, basically, that all web sites experiment on their users.  As a question of fact, this is obviously correct – the modern art of website management and digital media in general is best understood as a practical application of modern social science.  As a question of norms, it doesn’t seem particularly troubling either.  While the Facebook experiment was in an ethical grey area, the experiments Rudder outlines would easily pass muster with an IRB.*  OKCupid didn’t get informed consent, but also posed no potential for physical or emotional harm to human subjects.

One thing the inter-academia Facebook kerfluffle has overlooked – nowadays more and more social science is taking place outside of the university.  Places like OK Cupid and Facebook are accumulating some of the most useful and illuminating data on human behavior, and it’s all locked up in proprietary databases.  They have adopted social science methods, but their insights aren’t getting out to benefit society as a whole.  None of it is peer-reviewed or shared amongst themselves, either – I have to wonder how many tech companies have internally validated “insights” that contradict what’s known by others.

As time goes on, a smaller and smaller share of social science will take place in the academy.  If you’re a psychologist or behavioralist and really want to dive into the mysteries of human motivation and interaction in 2014, would you want a job at a university or OK Cupid?


*: Institutional Review Board, a university body that approves experiments on human beings.


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