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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.