Adventures in OkCupid Land: perspectives and hacks from the online-dating site

About a month ago[1] I set up and starting developing an OkCupid profile. As with many new activities upon which I embark, I approached it empirically (though, that's not to say thoroughly) – undertook a review of existing literature, maintained a logbook, and reviewed the performance of each experiment in communication. Now, if the result cannot be an interesting activity partner, casual sex, or a life-long thing, at least I will have a blog post to show for it.

Privacy and honesty

Perusing the profiles of both women and men on OkCupid, a couple of things became immediately apparent: people can actually be quite skilful at expressing themselves,[2] and the brave honesty of people’s profiles. For many an OkCupider writes extensively and un-ironically about where they are at in life, and provides nuanced and revealing explanations to their ‘answers’. Information that we would never consider putting on our Facebook walls (which are, ostensibly at least, only for the eyes of our friends and family) appears in length on public dating profiles.

This probably has something to do with how it is often easier to confess secrets to a stranger than our partners or parents; or, it could simply be that there’s just a lot more at stake with online dating compared to our social networking sites – e.g. the possibility of getting laid by someone really cool. Of course, there is also the obstacle of matching up a real life person with their respective online identities. With Facebook, Friending requires overt permission from both parties after having searched by their email address or whatnot. Yet on OkCupid, typically only those who recognize your photos (particularly if you happen to be Julian Assange) will be able to link them to your real life identify – emphasis on the ‘typically’.[3] In about the first fifteen minutes of browsing my ‘matches’ and ‘similar users’ list on OkCupid I had located one ex-girlfriend, one ex-housemate, one current housemate, and a couple of fellow alumni.

However, I think that the greatest barrier between our various online personas, and the rest of our lives, is one of convention. I could climb over a front-yard fence and peer through a neighbor’s window, but do not do so because of social norms. Similarly, I tend to draw a line between what I read about someone on the web (particularly if it was not intended for me), and what I might bring up in general conversation.[4] (At least that is what I expect people close to me do in relation to my more risqué blog posts). To use the expression, what happens on OkCupid tends to stay on OkCupid.

That said, I think the idea of online privacy is pretty much bull shit – and is one reason why I make my Facebook profile and OkCupid username public: anything else is just self-delusional.

Twenty thousand questions

Quizzes are addictive – few more so than those that OkCupid offers. I admit that I went a bit crazy with the revelations here, before pulling back and making many of my answers private (part of my effort of ‘sanitizing’ my profile for public consumption). Now I only have a little fewer than 2 000 questions - out of about 4 000 and counting – publicly available, and 500 answers that are invisible to all but OkCupid itself … and to whomever OkCupid wishes to sell my consumer-profile …

The questions are an anthropological goldmine, and OkCupid knows it.[5] They are also tremendously entertaining – such as, ‘Which aspect of the salmon life cycle best corresponds with your current state in life?’ – and spilling over into the tragicomic. For instance, when asked, ‘How does the idea of being slapped hard in the face during sex make you feel?’ I could not help but answer ‘Nostalgic’.

I will also admit to having started out rather flaky, in the sense of trying to be all things to all men … or in this case, all women. I subscribed to many an opinion, but flagged none as particularly important. Similarly, I selecting agreeable answers that I hoped would ensure maximum compatibility. Constant nagging from the OkCupid bot, and my increasing awareness that I might be attracting some flakey people myself, meant that I started to get a bit more meticulous and strong-willed in my answers. What sealed it, though, was discovering that my match percentage with someone increased not only by giving the answers that they were after – but also marking that question with the same degree of seriousness as they had.

Time to go through all my answers again, I figured.

One particularly frightening (in retrospect) activity involved perusing the profile of someone that I liked the look of, answering questions as I imagined they would answer them, and then getting frustrated and confused when our answers were different. I reassured myself that in 20 hours time, I could go back and have another go at giving the ‘right’ answer – before I realized how twisted my reasoning had become. I had locked on to them because they appeared high in my match listing (me having, at that stage at least, answered questions reasonably honestly) – and then gone into a fit when their match percentage decreased. ‘Surely, we’re perfect for one another, right?’ I thought – and then paused, and took a deep breath, and pushed back from my PC for a long break.

The About page

Step 1: Earn more
“We did a little investigating as to whether a person's stated income had any real effect on his or her online dating experience. Unsurprisingly, we found that it matters a lot, particularly for men … If you're a young guy and don't make much money, cool. If you’re 23 or older and don't make much money, go die in a fire. It's not hard to see where the incentive to exaggerate comes from.” - OkCupid
Their words, not mine.

Step 2: Remain silent
“Write nothing about yourself. If she’s reading your profile in the first place, it means she’s already sold on your pictures. You have nowhere to go but down; your literary wit—as awesome as you think it may be—is overkill. Use your “Intro” to write precisely what you find attractive in girls—attitudes, passions, dreams. Keep it lighthearted. Does she like to travel or camp? Do you like girls who make faces? Do you dislike girls who say, “I know, right?” That kind of shit. Mention nothing about body parts. This intro should be no more than a paragraph. Anything more and you’re trying too hard.” – Dave Glenn

Step 3: Know what you want

I should apparently give special attention to the final question (‘You should message me if’) in part because it is the last part of my bio that any OkCupiders will be left reading. It also serves a very important internal function, along with the Q and As, of helping me clarify my own wants and needs. As the amazing ChuckNox reminds us, “If you find that there’s confusion for you, around sex and dating … you need to take a step back and ask yourself, what are you a ‘Yes’ to, and what are you ‘No’ to, and just get clear about that.”

Step 4: Edit

Most OkCupiders are going to encounter my ‘About’ passages on their Welcome page and match results – however, they will only see about five lines for each. It is probably worth me keeping each passage no longer than that – lest OkCupid truncate some important bit of context. Furthermore, brevity being the soul of wit, just enough is more. The Style Guide also allows limited formatting and linking – italics, bold, [[tagging]] interests, and other users. Tagging interests allows you to appear in people’s interest-filtered searches; if you are going to tag other users, it seems obligatory that you add ‘the awesome’ before their name J . It also probably helps to get their permission. 

The photos

Most people, I assume, will turn to their Facebook albums for photographic inspiration. However, Google Picasa turned out to be a great resource for quickly locating photos of myself, using the dark magics of intelligent facial recognition, in what is an otherwise absurdly sized collection.

OkCupid’s own blog article has some good pointers on which actual photos to select; the tldr of it that men’s photos are apparently most effective when they look away from the camera, don’t smile, and include the following (in order of effectiveness):
  1. An animal 
  2. Muscle - though this becomes less effective by age 
  3. (less so) An interesting activity 
  4. (and a very big drop-off) friends 
AskMen – that reliable source of anxiety and self-doubt – recommends that when it comes to profile shots, quality is far more important than quantity: only have consistently good shots, as one bad one can negate the rest. Confirming the above list, AskMen also advises keeping the focus, literally and technically, on oneself – blur the background or ensuring it is otherwise uneventful.

In response to these points, I quickly resurrected a photo of my family’s Border Colley taken at my alma mater, scrapped the chummy shots of my housemates and I (sorry guys), and made sure I was frowning in at least a couple photos. Dark, mysterious air adequately cultivated, no? 

The messages

My approach so far has generally been to work refer to my Match percentage list, starting at those I have the highest romantic and platonic compatibility, and working my way down. I recognize that the Match percentage is not the be all and end all – in fact, they mean very little.

One way that I can confirm this is that of the 23 women above 92 per cent, only two of them are still in correspondence with me.

My decisions on what to include in the first message again come from the OkCupid blog itself, which lists some terms whose presence in a message corresponds with high response rates. These include compliments such as ‘awesome’ and ‘fascinating’, non-traditional greetings like ‘How’s it going?’ and ‘What’s up?’; mentioning of specific interest like ‘bands’ and ‘zombies’ (wtf?); referring overtly to their profile with terms like ‘you mention’ and ‘good taste’; and being self effacing with ‘sorry’ and ‘apologize’. After working my way through these keywords in a dozen messages, I started to feel like one of the title characters in Clueless learning to expand her vocabulary: “I hope not sporadically!

For guys, apparently the optimum length for a message 200-270 characters; however the key is that with less time spent sending single messages, I have to send a lot more – which leads conveniently into my closing remarks … 

The long game

My time on this dating site, so far, has been brief. My impression to date – and one that the corresponding Reddit Community and its ‘evil twin’ Seddit seem to confirm – is that in spite of online dating sites existing in a virtual realm, it remains a jungle out there no less wild than RL. This meat market is subject to the laws of supply and demand like any[6] – a law that we could, if we wished, trace all the way back to the production rates of each gender’s respective gametes.

We all have our special first world crosses to bear: messages from creeps burden the majority of women’s inboxes, while most men struggle with the constant non-responses. I balance on the precarious border between light and dark, quality of message versus quantity – should I cultivate the patience of a nice-guy™ or the spunk of a game playing® alpha; and if the latter do I try to be the Al Pacino salesman or Alec Baldwin?

Decisions, decisions. Maybe I should I simply switch off and let the prey come to me – yeah, right.

Image by pablocomotion


[1] My delay in acquiring a dating-site profile is a source of embarrassment, but at least consistent with my ambiguous relationship with technology.

[2] This might sound rather patronizing, but understand that I grew up in a region far from the city where books were not exactly the best thing to be seen in the possession of, and where many a Year 12 English assessment piece was written the day it was due. I also did creative writing as a degree – and there is the temptation, as I am sure common amongst many professions, to perceive anyone without a relevant degree as being a commoner.

[3] With the wonders of Google images, one should be able to search the interwebs for matching photos – if the user has posted it anywhere else such as Flickr or Picasa, you will have a direct line to them.

[4] Okay, so maybe the parallel is not very strong – so maybe a better one is that we might casually glance through the window of a house and see a couple making out, but we typically will not stare, or hold it against them.

[5] The OkCupid blog certainly doesn’t help convince me not to try gaming the system. Within its pages, for instance, they talk of their massive data-mining efforts that have allowed them to a person’s likelihood to have sex on the first date. For instance, they found that people who like beer, would kill someone, find the prospect of nuclear war interesting, and would in fact initiate nuclear war themselves, all to have ‘implied odds’ of around 83 per cent.

[6] The predicament reminds me of job hunting – do I whore myself out to whichever placement bureau will take me, race to interviews at every recruitment agency, send out clever and carefully worded cover letters to accompany my high-gsm résumé, and max out my connections on LinkedIn; or do I explore the invisible date market of mutual friends and colleagues.