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 thespark.com, 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 match.com. 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

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war