06 May 2011

Seriously, What Is Going On?

[This entry was originally posted at OkCupid.com on 6 May 2011. No changes have been made to this text in order to preserve what was originally said.]

I've been watching this site since I joined last November, and all that has happened since. Clearly there are things that have changed, and some that haven't. In particular is what has been happening ever since this site was purchased by the parent company that owns both match.com and chemistry.com (hereafter in this post referred to as "Match" and "Chemistry") . Now, I have no particular beefs with either Match or Chemistry, but at the same time I will never use their services. Why?

A while ago, one of the original founders of OkCupid wrote a very interesting blog post. It is no longer on the site (especially after the sale of the site to IAC, the parent of Match), but it can still be viewed here: http://replay.web.archive.org/20101006104124/http://blog.okcupid.com/index.php/why-you-should-never-pay-for-online-dating/. Why do I find this incredibly interesting? It shows that by using the techniques and principles that the site founders employed, one can easily see how much of an utter rip-off most paid dating sites really are.

Many of these changes (or lack thereof) have got me thinking: why are they doing it? What ultimately is the point? Are the corporate parents trying to get site users to use Match and Chemistry, and in particular their paid subscription services? Do they see OkCupid as merely a gateway/testing ground for their other services?

It's no secret that OkCupid, and in particular their free (albeit ad-supported) service was designed in part to not just merely be a dating site, but more of a networking site targeting college-age users who might not have the disposable cash or the desire to pay monthly subscription fees that often range between $30 and $70 per month just for a "full service" site. [1]

You see, the online dating industry is a rather cutthroat one that rakes in nearly $1 billion annually in the United States alone [2], which is indeed "big business." In this regard, the companies behind them are providing services that ostensibly are meant for people to find each other. Remember though, companies are in business to make money. If we all found each other, we are no longer able to be monetised for revenue to their sites.  

Armed with this in mind, I've come to realise that perhaps after the acquisition of OkCupid that the trend is to encourage users to pay for online dating services. This would also likely explain quite a bit as to why some of the things I am about to outline have (or have not) taken place:

a.) The failure to use HTTP Secure (HTTPS) on OkCupid. As a network security student, this is something that has puzzled me for quite a while. OkCupid runs atop its own webserver suite (OKWS), which was written specifically for this site. In addition, the site ostensibly has personal details that give raw insight into people's lives--perhaps enough for an evil person to reconstruct a person's personality, preferences, and romantic/sexual tendencies.

HTTPS throughout the site encrypts data being sent between the user and the webserver holding the data. This way, it is much more difficult (but not impossible) for a malicious entity to sniff packets and obtain not just a site user's credentials, but other data. If HTTPS is not used, ALL of that data, including the account passwords, are sent in "clear text," meaning there is no encryption and thus can be parsed out of packets.

b.) The removal of links and posts regarding journal entries. This showed up today, and a cursory Google search took me to the OkCupid forums (which interestingly is also hidden from the site's pages), where numerous people are threatening to leave. I concur with their comments as the journal entries truly provide a place for people to state what's on their mind into the "open bazaar" and read/leave comments--and for their part, make the site more than a mere dating/personals one.

c.) Site "enhancements" such as the roving bar when one visits a profile and the tag on every page with benefits of becoming an "A-List" member (read: a site ad urging you to pay for usage of this site--because the lure of using the site without ads apparently isn't enough. Look, I get that hosting a website and bandwidth is not free, and to an extent, the revenue from ads makes sense from a business perspective.

But what about the roving bar? Seriously. If I wanted to message someone from their profile, I'd just open a new tab in the browser window, or open up a text-editor/office-suite to type up any message I'd want to send, then copy/paste my text into the tab containing the site's private-messaging page along with the username of the recipient.

As for the rating system? I don't use it, and don't plan to. But, if I did, is it really that hard to go to someone's main profile page (or use QuickMatch) and rate them there? I don't think so.  

d.) the discouragement of users who post in their journals (or less commonly, profile entries) on how to remove the ads or other "annoying" elements of this site without buying the aforementioned "A-List" membership. Yes, I do know of ways that can very easily be done. No, I am not going to share them here publicly (though I will say that Google is your friend)...

So, with these and others in my head, what exactly do I plan to do about it? I am going to wait and see how much these trends continue, and the effects they will have. I will note that if the journal entries go away and they discourage linking to third-party blogs/journals (Blogger, LiveJournal, WordPress, etc.), I will strongly consider leaving as at that point there will be nothing to differentiate OkCupid from the myriads of mediocre dating sites already out there. 

[1] http://www.webpersonalsonline.com/compare_subscription_prices_online_dating_sites.html
[2] http://blogs.computerworld.com/online_dating_its_bigger_than_porn

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