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Christian Rudder (Rachel Idzerda for The Globe and Mail)
Christian Rudder (Rachel Idzerda for The Globe and Mail)

the lunch

OkCupid co-founder works with the ‘human story’ behind Big Data Add to ...

Christian Rudder has never been on a date with someone he met on the Internet, but he knows how to make your online dating profile picture sing. He can tell you what type of camera to use, what time of day to take it and whether you should show some skin. It’s not personal, it’s just science.

Mr. Rudder has used math to show that photos of attractive men showing off their abs and women revealing cleavage are highly effective at sparking an exchange of messages. Dating “experts” may counsel modesty and a pleasant smile, but “shirtless photos are sensational. They’re the human version of click bait,” he says.

The OkCupid co-founder used to share such tidbits gleaned from the Internet dating site’s users on its OkTrends blog, which he started in 2009. Those looking for love (or some sort of connection) offer up dozens and sometimes hundreds of intimate details to fuel the site’s “matching system” – and provide fodder for the dating research shared on the blog.

Mr. Rudder, who is guarded about his personal life and especially protective of his young daughter’s privacy, is aware of the contradiction inherent in his own aversion to oversharing on the Internet. “I’m a private person, relatively, and yet I run this site that asks people to put some of themselves out there publicly.”

He recently took the wealth of information OkCupid has accumulated over its decade online and spun it from blog into book: Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) shares the same lighthearted tone as OkTrends, and, like the blog, outlines uncomfortably familiar insights about human behaviour.

In not-very-surprising news, the book confirms that, yes, no matter how old men get, they tend to find 22-year-old women the most attractive, while women find men around their own age best-looking. In another revealing detail about the population (or at least the population of single, heterosexual, American online daters who largely contribute to Mr. Rudder’s data set), Dataclysm shows that people routinely rate potential matches of their own ethnicity as more attractive than others.

Those data points won the book a flurry of international media attention after its release in September, along with some criticism of Mr. Rudder for presenting a reductionist view of human behaviour, based solely on what people looking for love or sex tell a faceless website. Yet, he never claims that data science is perfect and admits that the facts he shares in the book are only the first “tiny windows looking in on our lives.” And he has access to an impressive sample size: The dating sites used in the book, which include OkCupid, Match.com and DateHookup, have registered 55 million American members over the previous three years.

By the end of September, when we met in Toronto, the 39-year-old had been on tour for three weeks and was looking forward to returning to his Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment. He settled into a delicate chair at Wish Restaurant – the Yorkville bistro with whimsical, white decor was his publisher’s suggestion – and opted for a lentil salad after a steady diet of sandwiches and bagels on the road. He had one final TV appearance that afternoon – and was dressed the part of tech entrepreneur, in jeans, running shoes and a sweatshirt – and admitted he wouldn’t mind a day off from talking about Big Data.

It was his fifth or sixth visit to Toronto, OkCupid’s second-biggest market after New York. Every year, about a million Canadian users visit the site, which offers its basic matching service free but charges for features, such as filtering results and browsing profiles anonymously. It is now owned by U.S. Internet and media company IAC, the same company that owns Match.com, a dating site that offers only paid subscriptions. OkCupid sometimes displays ads and sells aggregate user information to advertisers but the ostensibly free service as well as Mr. Rudder’s blog won it a reputation as younger and hipper than Match, the most popular dating site in the United States.

Mr. Rudder stumbled into the role of data scientist and chief comedian/mouthpiece at OkCupid. He founded the site with three friends from an earlier venture, the study guide site SparkNotes, where he initially applied for a writing position.

“I heard about someone else who was applying and thought, ‘Oh, I’m funnier than her,’ even though I didn’t have any comedy writing credentials,” says the Harvard University math graduate. He became creative director at TheSpark.com, the company’s sister humour site known for churning out personality quizzes that went viral.

“I’d always been computer-literate and I did know about programming, but I knew almost nothing about the Internet. They hired me basically as an editorial person; then, I kind of morphed into whatever it is I’m doing now over the past 15 years.”

Barnes & Noble Inc. bought SparkNotes in 2001 for $3.5-million (U.S.) and Mr. Rudder and his friends soon left the company and began work on an Internet dating site (one of their original ideas for SparkNotes had been a matchmaking service called Pimpin’ Cupid), which went live in 2004. None of the friends were candidates for their service.

“Everyone was dating, married or trying to date the person who is now their wife,” he says. (He first met his wife, Reshma Patel, when his band played a show with her then-boyfriend’s band and they reconnected and started dating years later). “But we understood how people used websites very well, and that’s the fundamental question.”

By 2009, people were becoming more aware of the sheer volume of information Internet companies such as Facebook had on them and Mr. Rudder says the decision to launch the blog was “an effort at transgressive transparency. We had nothing to lose. We were going broke a little bit at that time and figured we’d just get out there and show people: ‘This is what people are doing on OkCupid.’”

While there has been public outrage over government and law enforcement surveillance of citizens’ Internet activities, along with increased cynicism over how websites use personal data for marketing purposes, Mr. Rudder paints his social science endeavours as pure of purpose.

“If Big Data’s two running stories have been surveillance and money, for the last three years I’ve been working on a third: The human story,” he writes in the introduction to Dataclysm.

But he found himself at the centre of some controversy in 2014, when the OkTrends blog returned after a three-year hiatus to reveal: “We Experiment On Human Beings!” Following a public backlash after Facebook said it conducted a mood study on close to 700,000 of its unknowing users, the dating site admitted (bragged, really) that it, too, runs tests on its users.

In one case, OkCupid removed all photos from the site to highlight the launch of a “love is blind app,” and watched how people interacted and whether conversations stopped when the profile pictures came back on. (They did: “It was like we’d turned on the bright lights at the bar at midnight.”)

In a more controversial test, the site took pairs of “bad matches” – just 30 per cent compatibility, based on the hundreds of questions about dating, sex, religion and lifestyle that users can answer to feed OkCupid’s algorithm – and told them they were exceptionally good matches. The site (which revealed the correct match percentages to users once the experiment concluded) found the power of suggestion worked, and the odds of users sending a first message went up. OkCupid said it was relieved to find that conversations are still most likely to start when people are told they are a good match and when they actually are a good match, based on its trusty algorithm.

Mr. Rudder was taken aback by the wave of negative public reaction the blog received, but attributed some of the anger to the “brazen” tone of the post. “The blog’s always had that ‘out-there’ tone. It’s meant to be humorous, and people found that provocative, to say the least.”

But he also wondered about a lack of broader understanding of what he and other Internet executives increasingly see as the cost of admission: If you’re getting something free online, someone is most likely using your data for a commercial end. “Every person in our industry takes things for granted. … So I was a little bit surprised that people didn’t realize that’s how websites work. But we’ll see where it goes.”

IAC acquired OkCupid for $50-million in 2011, when most of its revenue came from advertising. But Mr. Rudder says the model has changed. “OkCupid makes almost all of its money off subscriptions now. People choose to pay for stuff that just makes it better.”

He stayed on with the company – he’s now the president of OkCupid – and says he has no plans to leave. He makes a living thanks in part to people spend increasing amounts of their lives online, but Mr. Rudder himself maintains a distance from that world. He largely stays off Twitter – apart from contractually mandated tweets about Dataclysm and his book tour – he tries to keep his Facebook profile private and doesn’t Instagram photos of his daughter.

“If you feel like some part of your life is no one’s business but yours or your wife’s, don’t put that stuff online. That’s how I’ve tried to live my life. Plenty of people want to share that. I don’t.” But he says that OkCupid needs users’ most personal information, or it doesn’t work.

The questions that feed the site’s matching algorithm cover a huge range of topics, from the length of past relationships, kissing on the first date and taking a partner’s last name to views on voting, abortion and teaching creationism in school. “Most of what we gather, we gather because people want to know that stuff before they’re going to meet you for a beer.”

OkCupid users often send him their dating horror stories, he says, but he’s also felt the pride of a true matchmaker when people tell him they met their spouses on the site.

“An economist said to me the other day, OkCupid creates all this utility in the world. And it’s true; we’re not putting anybody out of work. There’s no disruption. We’re just finding people to love or have sex with or whatever. There’s very little downside to what we do and I really like that about it.”

While other Internet obsessions may be fleeting fads, Mr. Rudder sees using math to make matches as a long-term business.

“We do have repeat customers, but also there are always new people coming in and they find people and they leave. It’s not like people who love Farmville and then they kind of hate Farmville. It’s not stagnating,” he says.

“Sex and romance are kind of like eternal things. Crushing candy is not.”

***

A lunch date profile

Christian Rudder, 39, Brooklyn, N.Y., ManWhat he’s doing with his life: Co-founder and president of OkCupid, author of the data-loving social science blog OkTrends and Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking).

He’s really good at: The ukulele – and other stringed instruments – he plays them in his band, Bishop Allen.

The first thing people notice about him: Probably his tech-entrepreneur wardrobe – jeans, plaid shirts, hoodies and running shoes, plus slightly dishevelled hair and glasses.

He spends a lot of time thinking about: How to write funny. “With too many numbers, people can tune your data out. A lot of the tech industry is very self-serious and I try to react against that too.”

Hometown: Little Rock, Ark.

Education: Graduated from Harvard in 1998 with a BA in mathematics.

Relationship status: Married, wife Reshma Patel runs a public relations firm.

Offspring: One daughter, almost three years old. “I don’t mention her name in interviews. I don’t want her to Google herself. You know how commenters are – it’s just awful.”

Pets: One dog, a pit bull. Living in a Brooklyn apartment, “is what many of my co-owners would call ‘sub-optimal.’ Our dog is a full-size maniac, our daughter is getting there.”

You should message him if: Well, he’s taken, but he thinks online dating is worth trying. “Obviously, I have a horse in the race here, but I think it actually solves a problem for people … You have to put yourself out there. It’s almost like cold-calling.”

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