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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If there’s no booze or naked women, what’s the point of being a footballer?

Peter Crouch came out with one of the wittiest football lines. When asked what he thought he would have been but for football, he replied: “A virgin.”

At a professional league ground near you, the following conversation will be taking place. After an excellent morning training session, in which the players all worked hard, and didn’t wind up the assistant coach they all hate, or cut the crotch out of the new trousers belonging to the reserve goalie, the captain or some senior player will go into the manager’s office.

“Hi, gaffer. Just thought I’d let you know that we’ve booked the Salvation Hall. They’ll leave the table-tennis tables in place, so we’ll probably have a few games, as it’s the players’ Christmas party, OK?”

“FECKING CHRISTMAS PARTY!? I TOLD YOU NO CHRISTMAS PARTIES THIS YEAR. NOT AFTER LAST YEAR. GERROUT . . .”

So the captain has to cancel the booking – which was actually at the Salvation Go Go Gentlemen’s Club on the high street, plus the Saucy Sporty Strippers, who specialise in naked table tennis.

One of the attractions for youths, when they dream of being a footballer or a pop star, is not just imagining themselves number one in the Prem or number one in the hit parade, but all the girls who’ll be clambering for them. Young, thrusting politicians have similar fantasies. Alas, it doesn’t always work out.

Today, we have all these foreign managers and foreign players coming here, not pinching our women (they’re too busy for that), but bringing foreign customs about diet and drink and no sex at half-time. Rotters, ruining the simple pleasures of our brave British lads which they’ve enjoyed for over a century.

The tabloids recently went all pious when poor old Wayne Rooney was seen standing around drinking till the early hours at the England team hotel after their win over Scotland. He’d apparently been invited to a wedding that happened to be going on there. What I can’t understand is: why join a wedding party for total strangers? Nothing more boring than someone else’s wedding. Why didn’t he stay in the bar and get smashed?

Even odder was the behaviour of two other England stars, Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson. They made a 220-mile round trip from their hotel in Hertfordshire to visit a strip club, For Your Eyes Only, in Bournemouth. Bournemouth! Don’t they have naked women in Herts? I thought one of the points of having all these millions – and a vast office staff employed by your agent – is that anything you want gets fixed for you. Why couldn’t dancing girls have been shuttled into another hotel down the road? Or even to the lads’ own hotel, dressed as French maids?

In the years when I travelled with the Spurs team, it was quite common in provincial towns, after a Saturday game, for players to pick up girls at a local club and share them out.

Like top pop stars, top clubs have fixers who can sort out most problems, and pleasures, as well as smart solicitors and willing police superintendents to clear up the mess afterwards.

The England players had a night off, so they weren’t breaking any rules, even though they were going to play Spain 48 hours later. It sounds like off-the-cuff, spontaneous, home-made fun. In Wayne’s case, he probably thought he was doing good, being approachable, as England captain.

Quite why the other two went to Bournemouth was eventually revealed by one of the tabloids. It is Lallana’s home town. He obviously said to Jordan Henderson, “Hey Hendo, I know a cool club. They always look after me. Quick, jump into my Bentley . . .”

They spent only two hours at the club. Henderson drank water. Lallana had a beer. Don’t call that much of a night out.

In the days of Jimmy Greaves, Tony Adams, Roy Keane, or Gazza in his pomp, they’d have been paralytic. It was common for players to arrive for training still drunk, not having been to bed.

Peter Crouch, the former England player, 6ft 7in, now on the fringes at Stoke, came out with one of the wittiest football lines. When asked what he thought he would have been but for football, he replied: “A virgin.”

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage