The History And The Science Of Online Dating


This week’s New Yorker contains a massive piece (Like there’s such a thing as a non-massive New Yorker piece!) on online dating, specifically the history and the science of it, by Nick Paumgarten. The piece delves into how people first began users computer technology to find romance, dating back to before the proliferation of the Internet, and how online dating, while providing everyone with “a wider pool of possibility and choice,” has a tendency to “turn people into products.” One man even tells Paumgarten that he regards Internet dating as “target practice” — a way to hone his skills of seduction.

But where the piece really hits its stride, I think, is where Paumgarten delves into OK Cupid, which, though I’ve never joined (I swear!), has always been a consistent wellspring of hilarity and fascination for me and countless others.

He writes:

The online dating sites are themselves a little like online-dating-site suitors. They want you. They exaggerate their height and salary. They hide their bald spots and back fat. Each has a distinct personality and a carefully curated profile—a look, a strong side, and, to borrow from TACT, a philosophy of life values. Nothing determines the atmosphere and experience of an Internet dating service more than the people who use it, but sometimes the sites reflect the personalities or predilections of their founders.

OK Cupid, in its profile, comes across as the witty, literate geek-hipster, the math major with the Daft Punk vinyl collection and the mumblecore screenplay in development. Get to know it a little better and you’ll find that it contains multitudes—old folks, squares, more Jews than JDate, the polyamorous crowd. Dating sites have for the most part always had either a squalid or a chain-store ambience. OK Cupid, with a breezy, facetious tone, an intuitive approach, and proprietary matching stratagems, comes close to feeling like a contemporary Internet product, and a pastime for the young. By reputation, it’s where you go if you want to hook up, although perhaps not if you are, as the vulgate has it, “looking for someone”—the phrase that connotes a desire for commitment but a countervailing aversion to compromise. Owing to high traffic and a sprightly character, OK Cupid was also perhaps the most desirable eligible bachelor out there, until February, when it was bought, for fifty million dollars, by Match.

OK Cupid’s founders, who have stayed on since the sale, are four math majors from Harvard. While still in school, in the late nineties, they created a successful company called the Spark, which composed and posted online study guides along the lines of Cliffs Notes. At the time, they experimented with a dating site called SparkMatch. The fodder for their matching apparatus was a handful of personality tests and droll questionnaires that they’d posted on the Spark to lure traffic. They sold the company to Barnes & Noble in 2001 and then reunited in 2003 to revive the dating idea. To solve the chicken-egg conundrum of a dating site—to attract users, you need users—they created a handful of quizzes, chief among them the Dating Persona Test. A man might learn, for example, that he’s a Billy Goat, a Backrubber, a Vapor Trail, a Poolboy, or the Last Man on Earth. The Hornivore (“roaming, sexual, subhuman”) might want to consider the female type Genghis Khunt (“master of man, bringer of pain”) and avoid the Sonnet (“romantic, hopeful, composed”). They also urged people to submit their own quizzes. By now, users have submitted more than forty-three thousand quizzes to the site. Answer this or that pile of questions and you can find out which “Lost” character/chess piece/chemical element you are.

LOL the “Hornivore” and “Genghis Khunt.” I really enjoyed that, though I have no idea which one of those the thing above qualifies as. I’d go with Genghis Khunt if you put a gun to my head and made me guess though.

Something else I found interesting was how the data collected by OK Cupid is being used by social scientists to draw conclusions about the future of the world, namely how the political left’s romantic life is screwed.

OK Cupid winds up with a lot of data. This enables the researchers to conjure from their database the person you may not realize you have in mind. “Like that guy in high school with the Camaro and the mustache who bow-hunts on weekends,” Rudder said. “You can find that guy of the imagination by using statistics.” The database also gives them a vast pool to sell to academics. In no other milieu do so many people, from such a broad demographic swath, willingly answer so many intimate questions. It is a gold mine for social scientists. In the past nine months, OK Cupid has sold its raw data (redacted or made anonymous to protect the privacy of its customers) to half a dozen academics. Gregory Huber and Neil Malhotra, political scientists at Yale and Stanford, respectively, are sifting through OK Cupid data to determine how political opinions factor in to choosing social partners. Rudder, for his part, has determined that Republicans have more in common with Republicans than Democrats have in common with Democrats, which led him to conclude, “The Democrats are doomed.”

The guy above is definitely a liberal, right?

Now excuse me while I go create an OK Cupid profile. KIDDING. As long as I have Turntable.Fm, I don’t need sex and I’ll eat sushi alone tonight, just like Bill Murray, and I will like it!

(Horrible online dating profile pics via. Murray gif via Roboshark)

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