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August 24, 2012 6:17 PM   Subscribe

I want to make a fake dating profile to do research. Is this unethical?

I am a writer and I am writing a story right now that has some discussion about online dating and dating in general. After hearing a friend talk about online dating**I was curious to see who was on there, how people respond, etc. I then thought I might set up a profile to see how men respond to a particular character type.

I am married and I'm also a highly visible member of the community I live in (which is somewhat small). Obviously, I can't be on the site (or my photo can't). I was playing with the idea of setting up a fake profile with a stock photo. Is this unethical (I realize this is part of a larger question as to the ethics of immersive nonfiction, so lay that on me as well)? I could, after the initial contact, tell these men that I'm doing research. I'm most interested in how men would respond to, again, a particular type of woman which makes asking to look at someone else's profile more difficult.

**No, I can't ask this friend to let me see her profile because she has since stopped using the site and is a different personality from the profile I'd want to use for trolling.
posted by mrfuga0 to Media & Arts (42 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you think that lying to people and fucking with their emotions is unethical, then yes, this is unethical.
posted by elizardbits at 6:19 PM on August 24, 2012 [50 favorites]

No, but if your husband find out, you might have some 'splaining to do.
posted by lalala1234 at 6:20 PM on August 24, 2012

If you were a university researcher, the ethics board would say it is unethical to deceive like this.
posted by k8t at 6:20 PM on August 24, 2012 [14 favorites]

I once saw a reporter do this, but she used a real photo and disclosed that she was doing research and wanted to talk to people about their dating experiences.
posted by bunderful at 6:23 PM on August 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Most people are on dating sites looking for dates. By doing this, you would be actively interfering with their efforts. I'd call that unethical, or at the least, kind of creepy and selfish.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:25 PM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Certainly what k8t said, but also for another reason than ethics. Think about how heavily you're biasing your data just by constructing such a profile. You know what you're looking for and to a degree what you expect. You're not going to find out how people react to a certain kind of person- you're going to find out how people react to a fictional character you constructed. I guess it might inspire you, and you'll certainly come out of it with stories, but I would hardly call it research.

Also, from an ethical perspective, don't underestimate how much online dating effects people emotionally. I've been upset for weeks after disappointing OkCupid dates, and my male friends get brutally worn down by lack of response rate and interest from girls online.

Therefore, I think it might be okay ethically to set up such a profile, but you have to disclose that you're doing research. Don't roleplay your character. Like I said, that's shitty research methodology anyway.
posted by libertypie at 6:25 PM on August 24, 2012 [13 favorites]

I don't know about the rest of it all, but I can tell you for sure that you'd be violating the terms of use at pretty much any stock photo agency if you used a stock photo in that way. DO NOT DO THAT.
posted by blaneyphoto at 6:31 PM on August 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

So imagine yourself looking at a profile on a dating site, and you're attracted to the person in the profile. You bookmark it, check in a few times, and finally after a bit of agonizing you write a carefully crafted message to try to start a dialog. The answer you get is "oh, this entire profile is crap and I'm actually a researcher, but its interesting that you decided to write to me, so thanks, duly noted." If you're anything like me, you'd probably tell the researcher to go fuck themselves, and then spend the next few hours telling yourself they're not worth your ire. By the end of the day it will have turned into an anecdote you tell your friends about the inconsiderate dicks you find online.

Sound like a good way to do research to you?

Also I'm assuming you would IMMEDIATELY reveal that its a fake profile upon being contacted. Right??
posted by tempythethird at 6:31 PM on August 24, 2012 [6 favorites]

As someone who met his wife on an online dating website, I have to say I would have found this an awful thing to do. People who try to do online dating wind up putting more than a little bit of effort into it, and being told that someone I'd reached out to was just "doing research" would have been a slap in the face. You'd probably also be violating the terms of service of the site you were using, and I wouldn't blame them for banning your account.
posted by graymouser at 6:32 PM on August 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Unethical in the extreme. What you're saying is that you want to lie to people, screwing with their hopes and dreams of finding love, just to research a story. That's really a lousy way to treat people, even assuming your spouse is on board with this --- and if your spouse ISN'T in the know with this, that's just one more person you're lying to.

The ONLY ethical method would be what blunderful suggests.
posted by easily confused at 6:32 PM on August 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

I serve on an IRB and this would never fly, deception research is very difficult to get approved and in this instance you would have no means of observing the reaction of the subjects once you revealed the deception. You could potentially create psychological distress and harm, and would have no way to monitor the subject and provide assistance as would be required. Do not do this.

Also, as a past user of an online dating site, this would be a total dick move. Do not do this.
posted by cgk at 6:39 PM on August 24, 2012 [18 favorites]

This would definitely not pass muster as ethical social science research on human subjects. I don't know where journalistic ethics would stand on it--there's a longer, somewhat less ugly tradition there of undercover journalism. And outside of those professional points of view, it's mostly trolling, as you said, which is not nice but hardly fraud.

The good news is that doing social science research is mostly boring. Getting interesting, meaningful experiences in the field typically means hunting for them for a long, long time. I suspect you don't really want to do this.

Spend that time revising your writing. I mean, make stuff up, and keep throwing it away until it's a great story.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:40 PM on August 24, 2012

Having a lot of experience with online dating, for me the profiles and messaging are a means to an end. I felt like I learned very little about the person from their profile other than a general impression. I don't think anyone really gets a good dating experience out of spending lots of time going back and forth via the website's email service - it's contrived, and peters out pretty quick because it takes too much time. Honestly not very interesting.

The most interesting things came out of going out on dates and meeting these people IRL, after only a few short emails. It's a total crapshoot what kind of person they actually turn out to be, that's what's worth writing about. But you pretty much won't be able to do that.
posted by lizbunny at 6:40 PM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

If in the very first communication you exchange, with others who are interested, clearly says that you are not interested and are only a researcher, then I believe it would be okay.
posted by pakora1 at 6:43 PM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing "not ethical" and "don't call it research -- it's journalism. It would never be approved as research because it is thoroughly unethical."
posted by vitabellosi at 6:44 PM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do not do this. It is a really lousy way to get information, even before you start talking about how you're messing with a bunch of actual people and their emotions and such.

Instead, read the OK Cupid blog. They did actual research on how people use dating sites (not that it's all that great, especially from a "conclusions" POV, but at least they give you numbers.)
posted by SMPA at 6:48 PM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

If I were to thinking about how to try to present something like this to my old IRB I'd worry about making it out alive.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:49 PM on August 24, 2012

Hmm, I'm surprised by the response to this. Men on dating websites are used to women simply not responding, as women get far more messages than men. It stands to reason, then, that your profile would affect these men no differently than those of all those women they write messages to who never respond. It's not as if they have a high-level of investment in the people they write to.
posted by !Jim at 6:55 PM on August 24, 2012 [9 favorites]

I'm assuming you wouldn't actually respond to them, because doing anything else would be leading them on, which is definitely awful.
posted by !Jim at 6:57 PM on August 24, 2012

BTW, an academic research point of view: "Spies Like Us--When Sociologists Deceive Their Subjects."

And in spite of this and this, contemporary journalists have trouble with issues like this.

That's the problem with clouding the issue of what counts as research and what's a stunt or a troll.

Incidentally, I'm not sure why you're getting jumped on so vehemently for asking a simple question when you haven't actually done anything wrong yet, LOL.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:59 PM on August 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

You yourself called it trolling.

Think of there being two groups of men on a dating site (to simplify things). A low-commitment group, who send lots of messages like "sup girl" and "u look hott holla back", and a high-commitment group, who consider each person they contact carefully and spend time crafting a message hoping to make a connection. Which of these two groups is harmed by fake profiles? Which group would you want to drive off by wasting their time, so people like your friend only get messages from the other group?

Something more ethical you could do would be to set up a profile making it clear you are married, not there for dating, etc. and then find and contact women who have whatever traits you are interested in and ask them about their experiences.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 7:07 PM on August 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

All the previous naysaying aside, keep in mind that some of the most groundbreaking research of the past century would never, ever pass a modern IRB.

And if you don't have an institutional affiliation (not clear from your question what sort of writing you do, so perhaps you do have an employer that would object) or a grant provider to hold you accountable - Have fun.

As for the whole "taking advantage of people looking for dates" angle... Seriously guys? Anyone on those sites already needs to apply some seriously fine-grained filters to weed out the psychos and stalkers and pervs and what-have-you. A relatively safe researcher just making pleasant conversation counts as the least among those not quite what they present themselves as.
posted by pla at 7:07 PM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Dude, you even describe it as "trolling" in your own post! That should answer your question all by itself. Please don't troll in an environment that everybody else takes seriously.

Why not post another question here next week: "If you have (x) and (y) characteristics, answer some questions about your experiences with online dating!"
posted by ostro at 7:11 PM on August 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think it would be unethical, doubly so if it were a site where users potentially catch hell from their neighbors or employers if discovered (whether or not you ID them).
posted by zippy at 7:12 PM on August 24, 2012

For an extreme example of the above, certainly beyond what you are thinking, but on the same continuum, see this.
posted by zippy at 7:15 PM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

All the previous naysaying aside, keep in mind that some of the most groundbreaking research of the past century would never, ever pass a modern IRB.

Good grief. Please don't allow this abhorrent (and false) sentiment to enter your ethical calculus on this matter. For every Stanford Prison Experiment, there's a Tuskeegee Syphillis Trial. For every Milgram experiment, there's a Mengele experiment. Not to mention that the two GOOD examples changed participants' lives irrevocably, and for the worse. What's important in modern research is grounded in beneficence, justice, and respect for persons; IRBs are just bureaucracies so that shitty research can't fly under the radar. (And, no offense, you're not conducting groundbreaking research.)

That said, I don't think it really matters. Talk about IRBs is a red herring. You're not thinking of this as academic research, and as others mentioned, it would never be approved as academic research, and therefore never be published as academic research. Others can speak more to ournalistic ethics. For what it's worth, my own opinion depends on how much you plan to lead men (level of interaction) before either coming clean or breaking contact. If you're just putting up a profile to collecT solicitations/first contact messages, you're just adding a tiny bit of noise and it doesn't matter.

But since men tend to get far fewer responses from women than the reverse, I think you have to consider that any level of interaction (sending or responding to messages) should be considered "leading them on".
posted by supercres at 7:28 PM on August 24, 2012 [7 favorites]

I'm not sure why everyone is SO SURE this wouldn't pass ethics muster. I read a really interesting law review article about two years ago where the author put profiles on dating websites. If I recall correctly, the picture & information was the same, but the person's race was listed as different in the different profiles (the picture was of a torso, not a face, and was of a racially ambiguous skintone).

It was a fantastic article, really well done - I can look for it if you'd like, please memail me. You might be able to contact the author to see what he did, ethics-wise. My recollection is that he counted the number of responses & didn't respond to any of them.

Personally, I don't think there is any ethical problem with putting up a fake profile (assuming you have the permission of the person in the photo). If someone is getting overly attached based solely on reading a profile, that's their problem. It really should be no big deal if someone doesn't respond to a message. However, I think that corresponding as a fake would be a huge ethical problem.
posted by insectosaurus at 7:28 PM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you were doing qualitative research for publication in an academic journal, it would be considered unethical, although when internet research was the Big New Thing people did do this.

See for example this nice open access article on the topic.

For what it's worth, they call for "methodological best practices" at the end of the article. These have since been developed, and best practice in research is that you can't do what you propose to do.
posted by k8lin at 7:30 PM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think if you drew a line it would fall under the 'unethical' side, but it would be a really shallow, not-very-bad unethical, like jaywalking. A huge majority of messages just go unanswered for any number of reasons and unless you're completely new you very quickly learn it doesn't mean anything, so there's very little harm caused by just by opening a profile and observing unsolicited messages.

Increasingly creepy is responding in character, and I'd draw the line at having someone meet up under false pretenses.
posted by spatula at 7:51 PM on August 24, 2012

Every day thousands of people respond to ads and get no response in return. If you set up a profile and never contacted another person you would be as dickish as one of these people that never respond. You would still be an asshole, but not on a significant scale.

But once you begin deceptively interacting with people you become an asshole through your vile core.
posted by munchingzombie at 7:52 PM on August 24, 2012

I think if you try you can find the information you need without posting a profile on the site. There are dozens of blogs and tumblrs and twitter accounts set up to post things people say to them on online dating sites. Use those instead. If that's not enough, interview someone who has a real account on one of these sites. You'll get *more* information than you would posting a fake profile and you won't lead any poor suckers on.
posted by mskyle at 8:02 PM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm fairly certain 35% of the profiles on okcupid are already playing this game. If you just want to check out what types of messages you will receive without messaging anyone back then you are not really going to mess with the culture of the no payment sites.
posted by skrozidile at 9:24 PM on August 24, 2012

To me, this is about as unethical as spam mail. That is to say, definitively unethical, but rises the level of nuisance. I would just make sure to do this in another city and not get real-world with it. And/or, set up a profile but don't answer any emails.

Make a long story short, a friend of mine did this (we are both guys) to see what women go through on online sites and it was hilarious.
posted by phaedon at 12:49 AM on August 25, 2012

I think you would need to disclose that you are doing research, but otherwise just putting up a profile to see what kind of responses you get isn't unethical in my opinion and wouldn't really waste anyone's time.

I'm a female on okcupid and I would rather get a thoughtful message from someone doing research than the "sup girl" type of messages from idiots who are just mass-messaging everyone.

However, if I started messaging with someone who I was actually interested in and THEN found out that it was a researcher I would be really annoyed...but at the end of the day I can't say it would crush my hopes and dreams. But I would call that unethical - and, potentially, a violation of the terms of the site...and if that sort of thing isn't a violation it should be.
posted by fromageball at 5:01 AM on August 25, 2012

Could you put an ad in the paper asking for single people of that personality type, and ask them if they'd be willing to use a dating site to (try to) meet someone. Meanwhile you would have access to act strictly as a fly on the wall? At least that way it would be a real person the other site users would be interacting with - you would just be observing how things went.
posted by EatMyHat at 5:28 AM on August 25, 2012

It breaks the Prime Directive. So, unethical.
posted by notsnot at 5:52 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

EatMyHat : Meanwhile you would have access to act strictly as a fly on the wall?

IANAL, but in some states, that would actually commit a crime, as I understand it.

You can lie, lie, lie, but you can't "intercept the communications" of a third party without their consent.

And supercres, you need to re-watch Star Trek II. 'Nuff said.
posted by pla at 7:21 AM on August 25, 2012

Years ago, I volunteered on a political campaign, where I met a guy who shared with me a story similar to what you're talking about. He'd been using online dating sites, met a woman who seemed interested in him and even went on a couple long distance dates with her before she admitted she was just using the site for research. (She used an actual photo of herself, though.) Then she called a couple of days later she was abandoning the research aspect in this instance because she liked him. They chatted for a few more weeks and he was preparing another long drive to go see her when she ended it. He wasn't totally certain, but he thought that stringing him along further was actually part of her research / game / whatever. While you could tell he was trying not to be, you could tell he was struggling with some huge cynicism regarding women and dating, even a year out from thus experience. However, I did hear that a year or so after that election he met and married a lovely lady with a chronic illness and became a loving husband and caretaker to her. So, I guess it wasn't a totally fatal cynicism. Still, making people question the sincerity of their interactions with other human beings for years seems just patently dishonest.
posted by Kurichina at 7:57 AM on August 25, 2012

What happens if in your small community you get a message from some married guy you know and his wife doesn't know he is messaging women on dating sites?

What happens if you get a message from your husband and you didn't know he is messaging women on dating sites?

These are two examples of deception possibly leading into tangle-wove webs.
posted by bukvich at 8:22 AM on August 25, 2012

Could you find someone who fits the character profile and ask them if you could interview them for the research for your story? I think that would bypass the ethics issue.
posted by Vaike at 8:36 AM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've been on the receiving end of this, and it sucked. Kind of a crazy story - girl put up 3 different profiles that didn't show her face well, each showcasing different 'parts' of herself and was collecting responses and messages to incorporate into a book of short stories she wanted to write. She didn't just passively receive messages, she actively messaged and responded. Hell, we even went on two dates before it became obvious that she was kind of a sociopath, or at least unable to understand or care that she was messing with people's feelings.

TL;DR - If you're just putting up a profile, maybe that's okay, but still shitty. If you're active, you're a jerk.
posted by OrangeDrink at 10:12 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

You'd be wasting people's time, jerking around their emotions, and violating your contract with the site. Not ok. I mean, sure, you're not like, murdering anyone -- but you are trolling and fucking with real human beings.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:21 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

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