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Internet

May 20, 2009

The Love Theorem

OkCupid co-founders Chris Coyne and Christian Rudder believe that math is the path to dating success.

Benjamin Samuel

Rather than trusting your instincts, or following your vulnerable heart, it's probably best to leave love to science. According to Chris Coyne and Christian Rudder, two of the co-founders of the free dating site OkCupid, compatibility can be reduced to pure mathematics.

Rudder and Coyne, who first met in Harvard's math department, created a system so intricate and complicated they dubbed it an "UberAlgorithm." Essentially, OkCupid members take tests and their answers are tracked, analyzed, and compared to those of other users in order to develop compatibility percentages. Members can then view their potential matches and begin courting them with messages and digital winks. Test questions (which are developed by staff and users, and many by Coyne and Rudder themselves) run the gamut from the mundane to the perverse; results can tell your dating persona or which infamous serial killer you most closely resemble. (I was "the boy next door" and Ed Gein.)

OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder
"Lying about yourself to get someone to like you isn't finding love, it's committing fraud."

OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder

Before OkCupid, Coyne and Rudder developed two popular sites: SparkNotes, a competitor of the CliffNotes study guides later bought by Barnes & Noble; and the more eccentric (and now closed) TheSpark.com, which popularized the now endless stream of online tests and quizzes, and was where Rudder subjected himself to a number of eccentric experiments like giving himself athlete's foot. (Nowadays, Rudder spends most of his non-OkCupid time playing lead guitar for the indie folk group Bishop Allen.)

In the following interview, which was conducted by email and edited for clarity, Coyne and Rudder talks about the mathematics of love and the science of compatibility. (You can hear them speak, along with Thomas Maier, the author of Masters of Sex, the biography of sex researchers Masters and Johnson; and Science of Sex creators Anne Machalinski and Christie Nicholson; at Gelf Magazine's Geeking Out reading series on May 21st at the Jan Larsen Art Studios in Brooklyn.)

Gelf Magazine: Sites like JDate, SeniorFriendFinder, and Ashley Madison seem to have their users marked. Who is your target audience?

Chris Coyne: We skew younger and smarter than the other dating websites. I'd wager anything OkCupid's community is the best educated, funniest, and most interesting.
As for targeting, we can accommodate anyone, regardless of religion, age, and any other demographic data. And interests. Most of our users are what you'd call "mainstream," but we have active groups you might not know, such as polys and furries. OkCupid helps them find matches.
About the age thing, having a younger audience is nice because Internet trends move from younger to older. A 35-year-old will take website advice from a 25-year-old, but not the other way around.

Gelf Magazine: Your quizzes and their tone seem pretty irreverent, more in the spirit of fun than romance. What's going on beneath the surface?

Christian Rudder: The quizzes are definitely goofy, and I wouldn't want to say that the "beneath the surface" stuff is particularly heady, but we do take pains to ask questions and give results that people will remember and, hopefully, tell their friends about. Part of that is being outrageous; part of it, we hope, is being accurate. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to be both of these things. We're always searching for ways to make a quiz more "forwardable." Unfortunately, that's been getting harder and harder. When we wrote for TheSpark.com, which was one of the first websites to have tests, back in the late '90s, our every new test would collect five million or more takers in just a couple months. Now it's very hard to break a million.

Gelf Magazine: What is your "UberAlgorithm"? How did you decide on your points of comparison?

Chris Coyne: Users on OkCupid have now answered over 500 million questions—each one of them in three parts—giving us over 1.5 billion data points. We hunt for personality trends using that data to offer colorful personality assessment. It actually has nothing to do with match percentage, just content.
For example, a user on OkCupid posted the question, "Is your duty to God more important than your duty to your family?" It's a pretty interesting question, and nearly a million users have chosen to answer it. We've recognized that question is positively correlated to a religion axis, one of about 60 axes we track. After you've answered a number of questions that relate to religion, we can comment on the difference between your personality and another's.
The UberAlgorithm takes all the questions you've answered, anywhere from 0 to 5,000, and it compiles them into a summary of how you compare on each axis, relative to others in your age, gender, and sexual orientation.
Specifically, the UberAlgorithm spits out a possible percentile range for you, based on the number of questions you've answered. To be clear, it wouldn't simply tell us you're in the 25th percentile of sloppiness; it would tell us there's a 95% chance you're between the 15th and 35th percentiles.

Gelf Magazine: You admit that you're not psychologists, but mathematicians. So, what do mathematicians know about love? Do opposites attract, mathematically speaking?

Chris Coyne: We call opposite attraction "reflexive incompatibility." In certain cases, it's obvious: In the BDSM crowd, for example, a dom could use OkCupid to find a sub, and vice versa.
At OkCupid we don't need to be psychologists because the users invent their own match algorithms. If you tell us you want to meet someone who likes to dance, could be a little sloppy, and absolutely must be a vegetarian, we can put that in terms the other dating sites can't. Because of the math we do.

Gelf Magazine: On your FAQ page, you say you take "all the math (and all the math implies) very seriously." What does the math imply? Why is OkCupid's math better?

Chris Coyne: A high match percentage on OkCupid means something special: that both (a) you and someone else answered a lot of the same questions, and (b) that you answered them in a way that satisfied each other. We take this very seriously, and all the math we do is to achieve this goal. A high match percentage means you'll almost certainly like someone's personality.

Gelf Magazine: Compatibility based on math takes the guesswork out of dating, but does it take the fun and romance out too?

Christian Rudder: Only if you talk about it at the dinner table.
OkCupid's algorithms are just an improved representation of how people actually make compatibility decisions. Fun and romance will always be unpredictable, but if our math makes it more likely two people on a date are each what the other is looking for, then the formulas, however dry, actually increase the odds they'll have a great time.

Gelf Magazine: What impact has the recession had on OkCupid?

Chris Coyne: We've grown a lot! In a recession, people look for deals. Pay dating sites aren't a deal. Free sites are. Also, the press has been picking up on us more lately, probably because they like the "free" story.

Gelf Magazine: What about accountability? Do you feel responsible for pushing bad dates or finding soul mates?

Christian Rudder: I don't feel responsible when someone goes on a bad date, because the two people set it up themselves, and at least some part of each of them thought it was worth the risk to meet up. When you're single, bad dates happen all the time, whether through a dating site or through your busybody best friend who's always looking to set you up. And, generally, the worst thing that happens is you wasted a little time and money.

Chris Coyne: It makes us very happy to bring people together. We get thank-you notes, wedding notices, baby pictures, and "I got laid!" emails every day.
Bad dates happen. But a healthy dating life requires quantity. You'll never know if you have chemistry with another until you meet in the flesh.

Gelf Magazine: Does the potential for anonymity and deceit allow our fantasies to run wild, and does this create any dangers? Is the Craigslist Killer a result of online dating culture, or was the internet just a medium to be manipulated like any other?

Chris Coyne: Sadly, the world can be dangerous, but I don't think it has anything to do with the internet.

Christian Rudder: As far as a Craigslist Killer-type situation, from what I understand about that, it was an isolated malefactor doing something evil, not evidence of some widespread online trend. I doubt there are statistics on this kind of thing, but I'd bet a large amount of money that less violence and sketchiness arise from online dating than from the typical pickup bar or nightclub scene.

Gelf Magazine: On your site Crazy Blind Date (which sets up rendezvous for strangers), you encourage people to describe themselves with honesty. How much do people lie, and how can this be stopped? And why shouldn't we lie?

Chris Coyne: Online, people sometimes lie about their body types. It's impossible to stop. If you have a specific preference, you should insist on seeing a full-body photo before meeting someone. It could save you both time.
Crazy Blind Date is special because it's for adventurous types who accept a very real chance they and their date won't connect. For that reason we encourage short dates. Users are asked to fill out a post-date survey of their partner and report if the other person misrepresented him or herself. The vast majority of reports are positive.

Gelf Magazine: Instead of being edged out by the bigger guy or overlooked because of the prettier girl at the bar, does the internet create its own set of insecurities for users? Or do our concerns remain the same?

Christian Rudder: I think dating online mitigates a person's physical insecurities, and online two people can get to know each others' personalities without the set of assumptions and baggage that appearances can entail. The internet also reduces people's inhibitions, so you get extremely intense conversations and flirting than you would have in person. But of course for online dating to work, you still have to meet the someone you're flirting with, and back comes all the real-world problems. So I guess I'd say the concerns stay the same, but are just a bit delayed.

Gelf Magazine: SparkNotes was accused of accommodating and facilitating cheaters. Can you cheat at finding love? What do you make of dating-profile helpers?

Christian Rudder: I don't think you can cheat at finding love, because finding love is what everyone else should want you to do! And who exactly would you be cheating, Dr. Phil?
That's not to say that some ways of finding love aren't smarter than others. (That's where OkCupid comes in!) And certainly lying about yourself to get someone to like you isn't finding love, it's committing fraud. Anyone who honestly puts himself out there is all right with me, and if that person needs a little polish to his profile, so be it. Not everyone can write about themselves well, or should be expected to.

Gelf Magazine: What do you say to people who are embarrassed about online dating? And if you do find love online, what do you tell the grandkids?

Chris Coyne: Don't be embarrassed! Your grandkids will probably be living in spaceships or computers anyway.

Benjamin Samuel

Benjamin Samuel doesn't live in Brooklyn.







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Comments

- Internet
- posted on May 20, 09
Vin

They're putting the math "back" into online dating? There was math in online dating at one time? Who knew.

- Internet
- posted on Dec 03, 09
PausingLeming

OkCupid totally rock!
It is by far one of the most original sites out there.
GO-Go-Go guys!


Article by Benjamin Samuel

Benjamin Samuel doesn't live in Brooklyn.

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