Can a dating site tell if you're a secret racist?

How the OkCupid website, started by four Harvard geeks, used statistics to unearth its users’ secret

When it comes to love and sex, how do you find out what people really feel, rather than what they say they do? Well, there are easier ways, but you could always start a dating website. Every time a user responds to a message, or clicks on a profile, she is telling you who she finds attractive, and who she's interested in starting a relationship with. Multiply that by a million or more and you have one hell of a database to plunder for insights.

That's what OkCupid did. Four Harvard graduates - Chris Coyne, Max Krohn, Christian Rudder and Sam Yagan - started the dating website in 2004. They'd previously run, which offered personality quizzes such as the Purity Test (sample questions: "Have you ever fantasised about a family member? Have you ever fantasised about your own member?"), and decided to take the same slant with their dating venture. OkCupid users answer some, lots or occasionally all of the 4,000 questions written by the site or submitted by others about what they are looking for in a partner. They also give feedback on how useful the question was and how much weight they would give to the answer when setting up a date. That allows every candidate to create their own algorithm - the mathematical "secret sauce" that finds you matches.

While the site users were clicking away, trying to find someone to go for a drink with on Friday night, the founders were busy crunching their data. In June 2009 the first blog post popped up on OkTrends. "Since we went online in 2004, we've collected an enormous amount of data on human interactions," it said. "This blog was started as a way to share some of the things we've learned about people."

And boy, did they discover some interesting things. Some findings were quirky: that users of both genders added two inches on average to their height - even though shorter women got more messages. Or that using ur instead of you're or your in a first approach shrank the reply rate from 32 per cent to around 6 per cent.

In October 2009 a post titled "How Your Race Affects the Messages You Get" appeared. "We've processed the messaging habits of over a million people and are about to basically prove that, despite what you might've heard from the Obama campaign and organic cereal commercials, racism is alive and well," Rudder wrote. "It would be awesome if the other major online dating players would go out on a limb and release their own race data, too. I can't imagine they will: multimillion-dollar enterprises rarely like to admit the people paying them those millions act like turds."

Rudder showed that the percentages of matches were roughly even across all races. But white men got the most responses from almost all ethnic groups; white, Asian and Hispanic women preferred them to the exclusion of everyone else. Black women, on the other hand, get a bum deal - even though they reply more often than any other group to messages from every race, including their own, their messages get by far the fewest replies. "Essentially every race - including other blacks - singles them out for the cold shoulder," Rudder wrote.

He contrasted users' actions with their words: only 6 per cent overall said that interracial marriage was a bad idea, and 38 per cent that they would "strongly prefer" to date someone of their own racial background. (Among white users it was 45 per cent and among non-whites, 20.)

After that, the blog tackled such taboos as rape fantasies (these are deemed much more acceptable in Nevada than in New England, and in Lithuania than actual England) and even questioned the extent to which bisexuality exists. Noting that 80 per cent of self-identified bisexuals were interested in only one gender, Rudder concluded: "This suggests that bisexuality is often either a hedge for gay people or a label adopted by straights to appear more sexually adventurous to their (straight) matches."

Strange combinations

Last April, however, postings on the blog abruptly stopped. What happened? As the OkCupid number-crunchers would say, correlation does not imply causation, but it's hard to feel it wasn't anything to do with the site being acquired for $50m in February by its paid-for rival Was it intending to suffocate its free competitor? When I asked Yagan, the OkCupid chief executive, he said the blog would return but refused to be drawn further.

Then again, running a dating site exposes you to bits of humanity that maybe are best hidden. OkCupid was rare in making its data public, but our hidden prejudices and preferences are clearly well known to those in the industry. When I emailed Markus Frind, founder of Plenty of Fish, to ask about his rivals at OkCupid he said his matching system was better, because "we look at trends or patterns in couples . . . A female doctor is never going to date a carpenter. There are many, many combinations of relationships that will never happen or are very unstable." And he had the data to prove it.

What OkCupid showed was that, when it comes to choosing our partners, none of us is as progressive as we think. Perhaps the world is a better place for not revealing our deepest, darkest secrets?

True love: A neon sign by artist Chris Bracey. Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex

Photo: Getty Images
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Stella Creasy targeted for deselection

Organisers on the left believe the Walthamstow MP is the ideal target for political, personal and geographical reasons.

Stella Creasy, the high-profile MP for Walthamstow and defeated deputy Labour leadership candidate, is the first serious target of an attempt to deselect a sitting Labour MP, the New Statesman has learnt.

Creasy, who is on the right of the party, is believed to be particularly vulnerable to an attempt to replace her with an MP closer to the Labour party’s left. Her constituency, and the surrounding borough of Waltham Forest, as well as the neighbouring borough of Leyton and Wanstead, has a large number both of new members, inspired either to join or return to Labour by Jeremy Corbyn, plus a strong existing network of leftwing groupings and minor parties.

An anti-bombing demonstration outside of Creasy’s constituency offices in Walthamstow – the MP is one of around 80 members of Parliament who have yet to decide how to vote on today’s motion on airstrikes in Syria – is the latest in a series of clashes between supporters of Creasy and a series of organized leftwing campaigns.

Allies of Creasy were perturbed when Momentum, the grassroots body that represents the continuation of Corbyn’s leadership campaign, held a rally in her constituency the night of the Autumn Statement, without inviting the MP. They point out that Momentum is supposedly an outward-facing campaign supporting Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party towards the 2020 general election and the forthcoming local and European elections. Labour holds 27 out of 27 council seats in Creasy’s constituency, while Creasy herself has a majority of 23,195 votes.

“If you look at the seat, there is nothing to win here,” said one Labour member, who believes that Momentum and other groups are planning to depose Creasy. Momentum has denied any plot to remove Creasy as the MP.

However, Creasy has come under pressure from within her local party in recent weeks over the coming vote on bombing Syria. Asim Mahmood, a Labour councilor in Creasy’s constituency, has called for any MP who votes for bombing to face a trigger ballot and reselection. Creasy hit back at Mahmood on Facebook, saying that while she remained uncertain of how to vote: “the one thing I will not do is be bullied by a sitting Walthamstow Labour councilor with the threat of deselection if I don’t do what he wants”.

Local members believe that Mahmood may be acting as the stalking horse for his sister, the current mayor of Waltham Forest, Saima Mahmud, who may be a candidate in the event of a trigger ballot against Creasy. Another possible candidate in a selection battle is Steven Saxby, a local vicar. Unite, the recognized trade union of the Anglican Communion, is a power player in internal Labour politics.

Although Creasy has kept her own counsel about the direction of the party under Corbyn, she is believed to be more vulnerable to deselection than some of the leader’s vocal critics, as her personal style has led to her being isolated in her constituency party. Creasy is believed to be no longer on speaking terms with Chris Robbins, the leader of the council, also from the right of the party.

Others fear that the moves are an attempt by Creasy’s local opponents to prepare the ground for a challenge to Creasy should the seat be redrawn following boundary changes. The mood in the local party is increasingly febrile.  The chair of the parliamentary Labour party, John Cryer, whose Leyton and Wanstead seat is next to Creasy’s constituency, is said to fear that a fundraiser featuring the shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, will take an acrimonious turn. Cryer was one of just four shadow cabinet ministers to speak against airstrikes in Syria.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.