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Why we're all just lab rats caught up in a web

By Rhodhri Marsden

Anyone who has ever dipped their toe into the murky world of internet dating will know that it can be an insufferably shallow environment.

We act mercilessly upon gut instincts in a way that we'd never do in real life; we reject and get rejected because of unsightly spots, or an inability to spell.

This week the dating site OKCupid confessed to having tested its users for said shallowness by measuring the difference in interaction when photos were hidden, when text was hidden and when the figure for mutual compatibility was artificially manipulated. The results, unsurprisingly, pointed towards an unremitting shallowness.

Christian Rudder, OKCupid's president, offered a simple defence: "If you use the internet, you're the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time."

He's right. From the testing of website layouts to the trialling of different forms of content, our emotions and behaviours are constantly pulled this way and that.

Internet dating itself could be seen as a huge investigation into human attraction, and God knows, OKCupid has published enough statistics in its history: from the lies people tell about height (we each add two inches on average) to the correlation between photographic depth of field and perceived attractiveness (the shallower the better, ironically). OKCupid's most recent study reminds us that the choices we make are often predicated upon inconsequential factors.

That's a valuable lesson that you wouldn't normally hear from an internet dating site that largely reinforces those choices. But no: apparently we're lab rats.

A few weeks ago, Facebook came under fire for a similar transgression. A researcher admitted that in January 2012 the service increased the number of negatively themed posts in the timelines of around 700,000 users, to observe the effect on their output. They found a correlation – ie mood is contagious.

Social interaction on the internet is a medium that's constantly in flux, shaped by complex algorithms and the even more complex whims of its millions of users. As such, it's guaranteed to play havoc with our emotions, not least because human beings are involved. So in that sense, yes, we could be defined as lab rats.

But there's a test we can always conduct that's outside the control of these websites: to measure our relative levels of contentment if we simply don't use these services at all.

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