The Secret Science of Online Dating

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People who own iPhones have more sex than people with BlackBerrys. Atheists have the highest writing proficiency of any religious or nonreligious group. Nevada has more self-described geniuses per capita than any other state. Oregonians tend to be more gay-curious than other Americans.

The man behind these recent findings, Christian Rudder, is not a sociologist, nor does he consider himself an academic of any sort. Instead, he works for the dating Web site OkCupid. And his monthly blog, OkTrends, which he launched last year, is suddenly one of the most popular Web destinations—2 million people have visited in the last six weeks—for fans of fascinating data about how we live and love.

Rudder is the gatekeeper of the trove of data that have been collected by OkCupid since its inception in 2004. His job is not to pair one lovebird with another (other staffers manage the matching schemes), but rather to parse the data given in user profiles into little pieces, and then reassemble them in compelling and often quirky ways. “We’ve collected one of the largest, most thorough databases of human interaction ever, and I have to make sure that what I’m writing about maximizes that resource,” says Rudder. “We try to explore stereotypes, especially ones you’ve never heard of.”

Want to know what books 30-year-old bisexual Latina women from Michigan are reading? Rudder can tell you. How about the political leanings of six-foot Indian-American males who play piano and have sex on the first date? Rudder can dig up that answer as well. Once he has an idea of something that would be interesting if true he goes to the database He posits as an example, “do Asians floss more?” For that question, he’ll run a search for all mentions of “flossing,” and sort those results by ethnicity. If he confirms a trend he deems fascinating, he’ll turn it into a blog post, using infographics, interactive photos, and requisite blogger snark. OkCupid is home to many users—membership is currently 3.5 million across the country—and Rudder says he has captured a representative sampling of America.

In his most recent blog post, about gay stereotypes, for instance, he discovered that straight women are more optimistic than lesbians, gay men are more ambitious than straight men and—contrary to popular belief—gay people are no more sexually promiscuous than heterosexuals. To cite another recent post, he played off the book, Stuff White People Like, and created a list of things enjoyed almost exclusively by whites. (Tom Clancy was No. 1 for guys; tops for females was the Red Sox.) Rudder created similar lists for blacks (soul food), Latinos (merengue) and Asians (Taiwan).

Unlike other dating Web sites, where users browse through a bevy of potential mates (Match.com) or automatically get paired up based on personality tests (eHarmony.com), OkCupid relies on an algorithm that measures a series of compatibility traits (e.g., cleanliness) in three ways: your answer, how you’d like your partner to answer, and how important that trait is to you. The service, which is free to join, currently is second in popularity to Match.com among dating Web sites, according to the company.

Rudder is surprised by many of the trends he uncovers, sometimes by chance. He was shocked, for example, to observe that a disproportional number of black members are ignored by potential dates. For example, black females only get responses to a third of their outgoing messages, compared with nearly 50 percent for nonblack women. “It just seems like they are massive outliers in terms of how many messages they get sent, and how many people respond to their messages,” says Rudder. (Part of this is likely attributable to the existence of certain dating sites that are solely for African-Americans, he concedes.)

Another surprise was to learn how dismissive white women can be of male suitors of all races. When the women receive messages from potential companions, he says, “there is a really big disparity in their reply percentages, and they seem to be more judgmental on many of the match questions. Income levels definitely affect them, and they’re more hung up on race than I would have thought.” (According to the data, white women respond to only about 20 percent of messages from blacks and Hispanics.)

Not all social scientists are impressed by Rudder’s conclusions, pointing out that his methodology isn’t peer reviewed. “I view the blog as a fascinating source of data about people on OkCupid, but I am skeptical of many of the broader claims based on these data,” says Andrew T. Fiore, a media expert at Michigan State University who studies online dating. “Claims like ‘Oregonians tend to be more gay-curious than other Americans’ are suspect ... It is very unlikely that Oregonians who use OkCupid are a representative sample of all Oregonians.”

Other academics are less dismissive, but agree that the findings should be taken with a grain of salt. “It’s pop sociology as opposed to rigid social science, but it does generate some interesting conversation around some captivating issues,” says Todd Schoepflin, the chair of Niagara University’s sociology department. “I would question, though, how totally honest when they reveal things about themselves on a dating Web site,” says Schoepflin. “For instance, I’m not bashful about telling you I’ve been watching The Young and the Restless for the last 15 years. But is this something I would mention in my profile if I was a single man using a dating Web site? Probably not.”

Rudder is the first to acknowledge that he’s no scientist but rather a data interpreter who knows how to entertain. His writing style is somewhat irreverent, but that’s part of its appeal. He’s playful, but never damning, with an admitted liberal bent. “I wanted the blog to read like it was written by a real person, rather than a company, so I’ve made no effort to hide my personality,” says Rudder, a native of Little Rock, who now lives with his wife in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and looks a decade younger than his 35 years. He arrived at his interview near OkCupid’s Midtown Manhattan offices wearing a lavender hoodie and turquoise socks stuffed inside loafers. His mop of black hair and silver-rimmed glasses make him a dead ringer for Harry Potter.

And Rudder is a bit of a wizard himself. At OkCupid he oversees 1 billion data lines occupying three terabytes of space, which is stored on 12 different computers. (He never reads individual user profiles; he only sees data in the aggregate.) His eclectic background might make him uniquely suited for his job; as a rising senior at Harvard, he switched his major from English to math, so he’s as fluent in Chaucerian wit as he is in algebraic geometry. He’s worked as a French baker in Austin, he still plays guitar for the band Bishop Allen, and he’s scored roles in youth-themed movies, including Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

But with OkCupid, Rudder seems to have found his true calling. “He’s probably the most creative person I’ve ever met,” says Sam Yagen, the chief executive of the company, who cofounded the Web site with Rudder and two other friends from Harvard. The foursome originally teamed up to create SparkNotes, an online academic study tool, before launching OkCupid in 2004. Rudder, who was the last cofounder to join, impressed the others with a packet of satirical essays he’d originally pitched to The Onion.

Since Rudder launched the blog, OkCupid unique-visitor traffic has nearly doubled, says Yagen. In the months ahead, Rudder will make sure his blog posts stay fresh. “You see a lot of USA Today-type studies about the best cities for singles, and it’s the same stuff every Valentine’s Day,” he says. “I would never do that.” Previewing an upcoming blog post, Rudder says he’ll run an age-comparison analysis on willingness to date members of another race.

Expect the posts to be fun, jarring, and, above all, counterintuitive. “The data rarely fit expectations,” says Rudder, “and often that’s a good thing.”

Tucker is a New York City writer.

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