There's a joke making the rounds among privacy lawyers about the real romance behind most dating websites. Users aren't really courting each other, they say. Rather, they're wooing corporations.
Rainey Reitman, activism director at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, explains that advertisers often consult social networks to find their potential audience, and dating sites like Match.com or OkCupid provide more information than most. "They're particularly troublesome," she says, "because users ... provide huge quantities of information in the hope of finding a perfect love match — but it's actually being handed to marketers."
OkCupid's latest social experiment, launched in Beta in January, takes its previous data-farming efforts to another level. Called "Combosaurus," it mines from a giant trove of six million OkCupid user profiles to offer personalized recommendations — on products, as well as mates. Combosaurus invites new users to create a "taste" profile and rate a series of nouns, the same way they'd rate a set of statements on OkCupid. Then it offers recommendations: Sonic Youth, based on your predilection for Jack Kerouac and the movie Gummo. Crime and Punishment, because you liked East of Eden and Heart of Darkness. It also recommends people, using a similar percentage-based matching system as the one deployed on OkCupid.
Combosaurus is a networking tool spawned from OkCupid's researching arm, SOMA-based OkCupid Labs. Its goal is to harness OkCupid's power to detect taste patterns. But OkCupid co-founder Sam Yagan downplays the site's potential as a marketing vessel. "This isn't the new frontier of online dating," he writes. "It's a simple social-discovery tool that we're playing around with." He adds that, at least at this point, Combosaurus isn't shilling data to advertisers.
But a recent study from Stanford University showed that the dating site does, indeed, release personal data to aggregators like BlueKai and Lotame, which sell it to marketers.
Social networks already give companies indirect access to data, says Princeton University assistant professor Arvind Narayanan, simply because they publish so much of it. Part of the reason Facebook's targeted ads work so well is that the network is constantly finding smaller, subtler ways to jot down information about users, largely through its "like" button.
What's unusual about Combosaurus is that it demands so much of a user's digital footprint, and offers so few carrots in return — if matchmaking is really the goal, the site fails to do it effectively. That suggests an ulterior motive which might have nothing to do with peddling ads, or finding sweethearts, or even with tastemaking.
Narayanan thinks Combosaurus is a lab project masquerading as a dating site, and that the founders ultimately hope to pitch it to a larger company. Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake tried that gambit with a similar "taste"-oriented site called Hunch.com, which only circulated within a small sphere of Silicon Valley. In 2011 it was acquired by eBay and subsumed within the larger company's internal recommendation engine.
That suggests Combosaurus isn't really geared toward dating at all, even if it bears the OkCupid imprimatur. Sure, there's match-making involved. But users are just the third wheel.