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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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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