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The Magic of OKCupid: Algorithms and Sex Appeal Attract the Hipsters

For all intents and purposes, Evan (name changed) is what would be called, in present-day Brooklyn, a catch. He is handsome, fit, quick to smile and incredibly polite. He also plays several instruments and runs a gallery, making art in his free time. In the time that I've known him, Evan has never been short on dates. Over coffee recently, I asked how he met his new girlfriend -- who actually wasn't so new, as they were nearing their six-month anniversary. "OKCupid," he told me, not hiding his shame. I was shocked. He's way too cool to be resorting to match-making services. "Not only did I meet my girlfriend there, but my roommate did the same."

Evan and his roommate Skip, who is as fashionable as he is artistic, were not the type of people I imagined dipping into the digital dating pool. I thought of basement dwellers -- people who'd given up, or were incapable of finding dates in the real world. But in asking a few of my New York friends, I've discovered that almost everyone I knew was on OKCupid. OKCupid had become a home to hip young things looking for dates in New York City, and it appeared that everyone knew this but me.

"There is no online or off-line separation anymore," OKCupid co-founder Sam Yagan told me. "We are always online. We shop online. We talk online. Why not date online? It's not a huge leap anymore." With Valentine's Day rapidly approaching, OKCupid is entering the busiest time of its year (after New Year's resolutions, before the day of love), and has just been acquired by to the tune of $50 million. If last year, its largest year to date, is any indication, this V-Day season is going to be filled with a flurry of activity.

OKCupid seems to be different from its compatriots at E-Harmony or On top of that, according to Yagan, it's nailed the demographic sweet spot, being most popular with people ages 18 to 34, who aren't exactly looking for true romance... just, good romance. Clearly, OKCupid is different; the site appeals to younger, more connected people. We've joined, and talked to users, to find out exactly why OKCupid is OK for cool people to join.

The Online Bar: What It's Like

The metaphor Sam Yagan used to describe his site was an online bar. "Think of a way a bar is designed. Single people go and hang out to meet other single people," he says. No one wants to feel like an alcoholic when walking into a bar, so no one ought to feel desperate on OKCupid, which is conveyed through cheeky, feminine graphics and the lack of sign-up fee (more on that later). The casual way the site addresses the user -- lots of exclamation points, frank discussion of drug usage and sex, and acknowledging the awkwardness of online dating -- feels much more youthful and fun. Signing up on OKCupid is almost mind-numbingly simple: Identify your name, gender and sexual orientation. Confirm your e-mail, and you are a part of the dating community. The site automatically suggests people within your desired demographic, but doesn't privilege you yet. You've got information to fill out.

Playing With Algorithms

okcupid The site has two clever ways to get your information. First, you have a profile completion bar. Like the Netflix algorithm, the more things you answer, the more accurate the "matches" that are presented are likely to be. Also, obviously, if you have no picture or essay questions filled out, prospective suitors are more likely to find you to be a creeper than a keeper. Therefore, putting in your info is a benefit to you -- and your experience. This "getting smarter" algorithm didn't exist 10 or even five years ago, and it is impossible to tell why it works so well for OKCupid. Does the algorithmic approach attract more young people, or is the influx of young people what makes the algorithm more successful?

"Improving your matches" means answering a group of frank, thought-provoking questions, like "Are clams alive?" or "Which of these is likely to make you more nervous? A promising first date or an important interview." Based on the answers given, OKCupid begins creating "percentages" of compatibility, rating you and a potential mate in terms of "Match," "Friend" and "Enemy."

OKCupid is incredibly open about how they get to these percentages, and they'll let you track how they've reached your particular number with another individual -- which is great if you have a degree in statistics. Tracking percentages is hard, but what is key is that each user ranks how important each question is. For instance, if a user doesn't care that her match thinks clams are alive, she'll mark "Irrelevant." But if an important job interview means that the prospective suitor is career-focused, -- an absolute essential for our imaginary user -- she can mark the answer as "Mandatory." This self-evaluative process means that browsers can find people who feel strongly about sex, religion and politics -- or someone who feels strongly about not feeling strongly.

"I probably answered around 100 of those questions that help you match you to people. The percentages made a lot less of a difference than seeing how they answered certain questions," Skip explains. "Sometimes I would be more interested in a low-match percentage than a high one, because opposites attract." Identifying what is important to the user is something Yagan takes very seriously. "We don't have any opinion. It is up to the user to tell us what is important."

The Anti-Search

okcupid Of course, OKCupid isn't just about answering questions. Obviously, there is the meat market aspect of any matchmaking service, which the site uses to its advantage. Search, says Yagan, is second-hand. "Yes, of course it is search-based. But if you don't do a single search, we still should have found a way to present people to you that you ought to know." In fact, using search is very basic, and boolean searches are impossible. Instead, the site sends "Quick Matches" and "Quiver Matches" to each of its members on a regular basis, with Quick Match acting as a "Hot or Not," presenting pictures of members (and telling you both if you chose each other as a match). Quiver sends notices of individuals you haven't met yet, but, given the information you've told OKCupid, you might like. Both Evan and Skip loved the Quick Match aspect of just rating a gal based on her picture, but Evan had no idea what Quiver even meant. Skip said, "The percentages of Quick Match were often pretty good, but everyone I ever had in my Quiver was so far off the mark it was laughable."

In the end, both Skip and Evan messaged the girls each are currently dating, based -- of course -- on her profile pic. After volleying a couple of messages back and forth, they met for a drink, and the rest, they would say, is history.

Why Is OKCupid Getting All The Cool Kids?

So the friendly, questionnaire and percentile-based layout appealed to both Skip and Evan, but why did these hip New Yorkers head to online dating in the first place?

OKCupid Is Free

Sam Yagan identifies his site's success as being a perfect storm of factors. First, it's free. The lack of a sign-up fee keeps things casual and spontaneous. "Women don't want to get 'picked up,' and being no cost lets you have a lack of commitment." While neither Evan nor Skip openly defined the free aspect as a major plus, they did both sign up without much thought. "Signing up was pretty haphazard," Skip reports. Evan says, "Casual dating just seemed like a good idea." Without a subscription, the guys were able to go on, check it out, and see where the experiment led.

The Facebook Effect

Sam Yagan says, clearly, he doesn't want to be Facebook. Make no mistake; the OKCupid founder loves the Zuck, but The Book and OKCupid aren't the same thing. However, the two do help each other out. "Facebook is not a good way to meet new people, but it is a great tool to keep in touch with those you already know. We, on the other hand, are a great tool for meeting new people, but not great at keeping tabs on real life friends." In many ways, the two serve opposite purposes.

But what Facebook has done is made the role of online communication socially acceptable. We jot each other quick wall posts, understand what it means to "friend" someone or comment on their activity. Distilling yourself, from your favorite books to any annoying traits, into several paragraphs was formerly required only for job or college applications. Thanks to Facebook, we've developed a vocabulary that makes us capable of presenting ourselves on the Web.

"I hope that OKCupid can take people to Facebook level," Yagan says. "First you are OKCupid friends, then after a few meetings or dates, you can reveal your true identity."

OKCupid Is Pleasantly Intellectual

"The problem with a lot of research is that it is done in surveys and labs. People are aware that they are being tested. OKCupid is a bit like having a video camera in every bar in America," Yagan says. This glimpse into the native, ritualistic mating habits of the North American gives OKCupid an edge, which it uses to then compile -- get this -- statistics about online dating. These factoids, meticulously prepared and rendered using rating information and messaging rates (plus the amount of messages that garner responses), are then parsed by the engineers at OKCupid and distributed on the blog.

On top of giving the site some coveted foot-traffic, the blog posts tend to associate OKCupid with the thoughtful and intellectual, not the lonely and lovelorn (like, say, eHarmony). "We take our nerdiness and use it to our advantage," Yagan explains. "We gain credibility as a smart and thoughtful site." For instance, in their latest post, the team at OKCupid have discovered that girls who have the highest and lowest physical ratings get messaged more than girls who are rather consistent. For an assortment of reasons, it is better to be really attractive to some than mostly attractive to all.

All this endows OKCupid with a sense of buzzworthy-ness; the findings are distributed by blogs, Twitter and the in-the-know (like Switched!). This quiet credibility can offer a bit of legitimacy -- something most online dating sites seriously lack.

Stalking Is Part of the Fun

On top of rating people in rapid-fire succession (and then hearing if anyone rated you the same), the dating service lets you see who has been lurking on your profile -- unless you turn it off. The spying quality could have been creepy years ago, but, with "poking" and "liking" so ubiquitous, it makes sense. Evan agrees. "That's what it is there for," he says. Skip took a more intellectual approach, suggesting that it accurately imitated the real-life experience. "It's a craft design on their part," he says. "It is as close as virtually possible to having a gaze and then noticing its return."

Alright, They Said It: OKCupid Is Easy

Evan stressed, again and again, that the reason he joined OKCupid is because he just didn't have time to play the bar game. "I am so busy with projects these days I don't have a ton of time to go out and play the field... I'm not bad at meeting girls. It is very easy to get wrapped up in a group of friends, so it's nice to meet someone you know is actually interested in meeting you." And, unlike Facebook, the history of a prospective partner is hidden; you don't see breakups, flirty Wall comments or pictures of past loves. All an OKCupid user gets is what the other user thinks is relevant. Nice and simple, says Evan.

The single-serve, concierge feeling of OKCupid is certainly appealing. As Yagan previously mentioned, users don't even have to search. While this simplicity is embodied by the "Winking" option, which is a simple click to let people know you are interested, both Evan and Skip didn't mind finding time to reach out to girls... once they were presented with the gals they liked. "I only logged on for 15 minutes a day," Skip says. "Unless I was talking to someone, and then I was trying hard to perfect that casually witty e-mail."

Our BK boys lacked the time to really search around, so OKCupid basically worked for them. And when an appropriate match popped up... well, who's to stand in the way of love?

What Does This Mean

The bottom line is, the best part of OKCupid is that it takes all of the pretense out of the messy dating game. Users can distill the most crucial stuff into single digital boxes: Yes, I am single. No, I do not smoke. Yes, I like men. To younger urban dwellers, this makes things easy; they already get news on Twitter and keep tabs on friends via Facebook. Instead of dancing around awkward subjects at a bar or pub, you have a large pool of people who are all looking for something.

Yagan sums up the reason online dating has lost its stigma quite simply: "Nothing should just be on or offline. You should shop online and offline. You should talk on and offline. You should also date on and offline." Like every thing else, the modern individual maneuvers between the Internet and non-Internet world (we can't even use "real" world anymore) to find relationships most gratifying, so why not expand your search parameters to the Web and use some good, old-fashioned info mining to locate nearby folks who are most interested in you? The time for looking for love all the wrong (offline) places is over -- and even the hipsters in Williamsburg agree.

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