We meet for the first time over coffee. He picks the place—Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Manhattan’s Ace Hotel, which tells me that he’s cool and cultured and can afford to drop $6 on a latte. I find him standing in the corner in a faded plaid shirt and tortoiseshell glasses, reading a paperback book. “Are you Christian?” He says he is.
We shake hands. He apologizes for picking such a crowded place and suggests we switch to a different coffee shop a few blocks away. We talk about where we’re from, our jobs, and the band he’s in, an indie pop-rock group called Bishop Allen. Arcade Fire comes up. So does living in Brooklyn. He seems a little nervous, and I’m not sure I’m into him.
It doesn’t really matter, because Christian Rudder is already married. The co-founder and president of the free online dating website OkCupid is here to talk about his book, Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking), which comes out on Sept. 9 and examines social media interactions for insights into whom and how we date. Rudder, 39, founded OkCupid 10 years ago with three friends from Harvard, Chris Coyne, Max Krohn, and Sam Yagan. It grew out of the group’s other invention, SparkNotes, a website that offered sexual-purity quizzes, personality tests, and study guides for academic staples such as Hamlet and Macbeth. Rudder was one of the first SparkNotes employees; he wrote the quizzes.
After Barnes & Noble bought SparkNotes for $3.5 million in 2001, Rudder and co. took the site’s most popular feature—a simple matchmaking test—and converted it into a full-blown dating website. OkCupid was launched in 2004; IAC, the parent company of Match.com and Tinder, bought it for $90 million in 2011. OkCupid, which is free to join, has 12 million users. Their median age is 29, 85 percent are college-educated, and 80 percent are white. They’re clustered in large urban areas, mostly on the East or West coasts.
Before it was acquired by IAC, OkCupid’s revenue came from online ads—which meant it didn’t have much revenue at all. Early on, Rudder asked a public-relations company for marketing advice. “They came up with, like, ‘Sexiest Super Bowl Cities!’ We shot that down pretty quickly,” he says. He was already in the habit of analyzing users’ data to make sure OkCupid provided the best matches possible, so he decided to start telling people what he’d learned. “Our thinking was, if one of our posts got talked about among your friends, maybe when it was time for you to start online dating, you’d remember our name and come to us.”
So Rudder started the OkTrends blog, where he wrote about his observations. If, for example, you want to know if your date is religious, ask if she’s a stickler for good grammar. Religious people, it turns out, aren’t too concerned with “your” vs. “you’re.” He illustrated his findings with brightly colored graphs and funny anecdotes. He revealed that iPhone users have way more sex than Android users, that people are about 2 inches shorter than their profiles indicate, and that gay and straight people average the same number of sexual partners (6 by the time they’re 30).
Soon, Rudder began stumbling upon some sweeping societal observations. The turning point came in 2009 when he grouped OkCupid users by race and analyzed whom they considered attractive. (The site allows users to rate each other on a scale from one—ugly—to five—super hot.) When it came to pure sexual attraction, Rudder found that people exhibited obvious and quantifiable preferences for people who looked a certain way. Asian women rated highly among men of all races; whites and Latinos of both genders did OK. But Asian men and black people—black women especially—were consistently rated lower than everyone else. “People commented with things like, ‘I can’t help who I’m attracted to,’ ” Rudder says. “That’s true, but there’s definitely a societal element at play here. It’s not just DNA.” The post was picked up by Newsweek, the Guardian, and the New York Times Freakonomics blog and discussed in an op-ed posted on the Yale Law School website. OkTrends quickly morphed from entertaining one-offs into a series of highly publicized, data-driven musings about the Way We Live Now.
OkTrends went on hiatus in 2011 so Rudder could expand his findings into a book. The result, Dataclysm, has much less whimsy than its blog predecessor (though it does include an in-depth analysis of someone who mentions Phish on a profile and the almost 100 percent likelihood that he’s a white dude). It’s mostly full of earnest statistical looks at young professionals’ dating behavior, conducted using anonymous aggregate data taken from the 12 million profiles and 6 billion ratings on OkCupid.
For one of Dataclysm’s studies, Rudder analyzed how men and women approach attraction. It turns out that as women get older, the age of the men they like advances, too. Men, on the other hand, consistently prefer women barely old enough to drink. “Women are over the hill at 21,” Rudder bluntly writes. Men will message women close to their own age, but only up to a point; even men in their mid-40s rarely talk to women older than 30. “We have a lot of serial daters on the site—men who just keep dating women 10 years younger than they are,” Rudder says. Eventually their tactics start to fail, and the young ladies they’re messaging begin rejecting them. The result is a lot of 40-year-old men and women who find it hard to get a date.
Rudder also found that polarizing looks—people with unique features or lots of tattoos—get 10 percent more messages and dates than conventionally attractive people. “A lot of people are put off by them, but the ones who like them really like them,” he explains. A few years ago, Marie Southard Ospina, 23, an OkCupid user in Manchester, England, tinkered with her profile by posting pictures of herself dressed as a goth, a partier, or what she calls “like Zooey Deschanel.” “I was either highly rated or horribly rated,” she says, confirming Rudder’s theory. “People seemed quite interested or aggressive, not much in between.”
Dataclysm also analyzes public Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit data but delves deepest into dating and relationships, because that’s where Rudder has access to the most stats. And his insider status at OkCupid sometimes allows for controversial user manipulation. In July he resurrected the OkTrends blog with a post titled “We Experiment on Human Beings!” It was a response to a recent outcry over Facebook’s revelation that it conducted psychological experiments on 700,000 users by changing what they saw in their News Feeds without their knowledge or permission. “I’m by no means a Facebook apologist, but I do think they get the short end of the publicity stick,” Rudder says. In his post, he pointed out that all websites experiment on users, admitting that OkCupid once tested its matchmaking algorithm by telling users who were ill-suited for each other that they were a near-perfect match. OkCupid’s members, perhaps inured to terrible first dates, didn’t seem to care. “We got maybe five complaints,” Rudder says.
OkCupid can analyze two people’s profiles and theorize that, because they’re both 24-year-old Democrats who like camping, they’ll probably get along. Obviously, though, data crunching can’t account for chemistry. Rudder, for instance, met his wife the old fashioned way: by giving her a sexy look while he was onstage playing at a gig. “Once people go out into the real world,” he says, “there’s no way to measure what happens next.”