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Dating by the Numbers: Why “hacking” OkCupid is a waste of everyone’s time

This data point is an outlier.
This data point is an outlier.

Is there no problem out there that can’t be solved by SCIENCE? Apparently not. Indeed, it has recently come to my attention that one heroic nerdy dude actually used MATH to get a girlfriend. No really, an actual girlfriend. As in, a living human female that he’s seen naked. (We can only presume.)

Wired magazine found the story so astonishing that they devoted an entire 3000 word feature to it.

The piece tells the tale of Chris McKinlay, then a grad student in mathematics at UCLA, who went searching for love on OKCupid, a dating site that uses daters’ answers to various questions, ranging from silly to profound, in order to calculate a “match score” that supposedly measures your compatibility with a potential date. But McKinlay wasn’t getting as many dates as he wanted.

So he decided to “reverse-engineer” OkCupid. As McKinlay — ever the romantic — explains on his own blog, he used his mathematical skillz to analyze the “high-dimensional user metadata in [the] putatively bipartite social graph structure [of] OkCupid,” and adjust his own profile accordingly.

Basically, he crunched a lot of numbers to figure out how the kinds of women he was most interested in — in particular one data “cluster dominated by women in their mid-twenties who looked like indie types, musicians and artists” — tended to answer questions. And then he fiddled with his own answers — and his choice of which questions to answer — so he would score higher match percentages with them. Ta da! Suddenly he had more matches.

He claims not to have answered any questions dishonestly, but as Wired notes “he  let his computer figure out how much importance to assign each question, using a machine-learning algorithm called adaptive boosting to derive the best weightings.”

It doesn’t take a math degree to figure out that fudging your answers so they’re more like those of the women you’re targeting will make it look like you’re more like them. You can pull this same trick in real life by pretending to agree with everything a person says.

But you don’t have to be a psychologist to see that doing this kind of defeats the purpose of OKCupid’s match algorithms in the first place. You’re creating the illusion of chemistry where there may be none. Essentially, you’re cheating, but in a really self-defeating way.

And by focusing so intently on statistically crunchable data, he also ignored a lot of the more intangible “data” that the profiles provide if you actually sit down to read them. The numbers don’t reveal anything about a person’s verbal charm, or their sense of humor. They don’t tell you about the interesting little details of the person’s life.

As Katie Heaney notes in a Buzzfeed piece on McKinlay’s strange quest:

[M]uch of the language used in the story reflects a weird mathematician-pickup artist-hybrid view of women as mere data points … often quite literally: McKinlay refers to identity markers like ethnicity and religious beliefs as “all that crap”; his “survey data” is organized into a “single, solid gob”; unforeseen traits like tattoos and dog ownership are called “latent variables.” By viewing himself as a developer, and the women on OkCupid as subjects to be organized and “mined,” McKinlay places himself in a perceived greater place of power. Women are accessories he’s entitled to. Pickup artists do this too, calling women “targets” and places where they live and hang out “marketplaces.” It’s a spectrum, to be sure, but McKinlay’s worldview and the PUA worldview are two stops along it. Both seem to regard women as abstract prizes for clever wordplay or, as it may be, skilled coding. Neither seems particularly aware of, or concerned with, what happens after simply getting a woman to say yes.

And that’s where McKinlay’s system seems to have fallen down entirely. Though Wired is eager to present his “hacking” as a great success, it took McKinlay more than 90 dates  — 87 of them first dates with no followup — before he found his current girlfriend.

In other words, his wondrous system produced a metric shit-ton of “false matches” and wasted a lot of people’s time, including his own.

And in the end it wasn’t his data crunching that brought his girlfriend to his door; as Wired notes, she found him on OKCupid after doing a “search for 6-foot guys with blue eyes near UCLA.” Happily for him, McKinlay already matched her preferences in these areas. In addition to appreciating his height and eye color and location in physical space, she apparently was also charmed by his cynical approach to OkCupid dating, so maybe they are a match made in heaven, if not in his data crunching techniques.

While McKinlay was going on first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date after first date, people I know have found wonderfully compatible matches — and long-term relationships — through OkCupid without having to date dozens of duds along the way.

How? Partly because OkCupid’s match algorithms led them to some interesting candidates. But mainly because they read profiles carefully and looked for compatibility in the words, not the numbers.

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Buttercup Q. Skullpants
Buttercup Q. Skullpants
8 years ago

God, all these tiresome, patronizing laws to make women jump through hoops again and again. It’s like being forced to click on a hundred “Are you sure?” Windows message boxes.

When lawmakers go to fill their Viagra prescriptions, let’s treat them like children too. They should have to fill out a 100-page questionnaire, undergo a mandatory prostate exam, be made to watch a graphic slide show of venereal disease victims, get signed consent from their mother, be given pamphlets asking if they’re really ready for sex, and then be told there’s a mandatory 72-hour waiting period.

And then they should have to cross a jeering picket line to get to their bedroom.

kittehserf
8 years ago

A jeering picket line who might just attack them.

Buttercup Q. Skullpants
Buttercup Q. Skullpants
8 years ago

Or possibly break into the bedroom and shoot them.

They’re so convinced that a bunch of delaying tactics and gauntlets will deter women from getting an abortion, aren’t they? It’s doubtful that anyone in that situation is on the fence about it. Most women facing an abortion have pondered the options and feel pretty strongly that ending the pregnancy is the right (or necessary) choice. But I suppose it goes along with the belief that women are capricious children and frivolously schedule abortions on a whim.

“Well, I was going to get rid of the zygote, but then some lady threw pig’s blood on me and called me a harlot. So I thought, heck, why NOT subject myself to a risky pregnancy and labor, plus diminished earning potential, greater odds of poverty, and a $150,000 childrearing tab (not counting college)? Whee! Now off to the Prada sale!”

LBT
LBT
8 years ago

Yup! And making legal abortions harder NEVER spurs dangerous illegal abortions at all! No sirree!

cassandrakitty
cassandrakitty
8 years ago

Honestly? Call me a cynic, but I think the delaying tactics are designed to run down the clock so that people will hit the time limit of however many weeks it is in their area and be forced to stay pregnant because abortion is no longer legally an option.

Buttercup Q. Skullpants
Buttercup Q. Skullpants
8 years ago

Good point, cassandrakitty…you almost have to schedule the abortion before getting pregnant, just so you can be assured of getting through all the red tape before hitting the third trimester. Plus, all the fooferaw gives the church ladies the satisfaction of meting out extra hardship for the jezebels who go through with it.

LBT – not in the least! If the nearest clinic is 400 miles away, desperate pregnant women without the means to travel will just shrug and say “oh well”. It simply won’t occur to them to seek alternatives!

The devious ways of chipping at Roe v Wade are really starting to get ridiculous. When Colorado was considering the “personhood” amendment, I had some embryos in storage there from a previous IVF cycle. If that had passed, I was planning to claim them as dependents on my tax return.

Kiwi girl
Kiwi girl
8 years ago

Add me to the list of people who would have an abortion if I got pregnant. It was a possiblity once, when I was late, as I’m never late, and there was no hesitation in my mind about having one. Then, as I was waiting to get pregnant enough to show positive on a pregnancy test, I started menstruating. I have never been so happy to have my period as I was that time.

I’ve been on the morning after pill three times. It’s not affected me badly, although raised oestrogen tends to give me migraines.

kittehserf
8 years ago

Honestly? Call me a cynic, but I think the delaying tactics are designed to run down the clock so that people will hit the time limit of however many weeks it is in their area and be forced to stay pregnant because abortion is no longer legally an option.

Count me in the cynics’ club. They don’t get called forced-birthers for nothing.

Buttercup Q. Skullpants
Buttercup Q. Skullpants
8 years ago

That’s a much more accurate term. I dislike “pro-life” so much, because of its smug implication that the other side is pro-death. I’m pro-life too. I just don’t happen to think a clump of cells counts as a person.

“Pro-life” is a total misnomer. So many “pro-lifers” also favor the death penalty, war, guns, overpopulation, economic injustice, religious beliefs that glorify the afterlife at the expense of the here and now, and policies that substantially worsen the quality of life for those “precious unborn babies” once they’re actually born. As far as they’re concerned, human beings are just disposable cannon fodder. Especially if they’re poor, female, or brown.

contrapangloss
8 years ago

Hi gilly!

I really do want to meet the anti-abortion person who is pro-contraception (the single most effective tool we have to reduce abortions), because their anti-abortion stance is solely about reducing abortions, not about patrolling sexuality and controlling women’s freedom to determine how to use their bodies. I’m told constantly that they exist, but I’m not buying it.

Well, that might be me? However, I’m not enough of an idiot to think that being flat out anti-abortion is a good thing. Sometimes abortions really are the best alternative to pregnancy, although preventing the pregnancy in the first place is better.

For instance, abortion for medical reasons is a really good thing. I’m not going to say that a woman and her fetus both have to die, because we can’t kill the fetus, because EVIL. That would be dumb. No. If the pregnancy is high risk, and a woman is willing to end it to save her life — or keep from screwing her health over for all eternity — she should totally do it.

Also, in some circumstances, like the ones LBT described, I have no real objection to first trimester abortions. However, when the major afferent nerves start to form synapses with the cortical plate at 22-25 weeks, I start feeling really, really awkward about non-medical ones. There’s a chance of pain reception (although not confirmed) and there’s been a good 3 months to end the little blob of life’s existence mercifully.

However, my feeling awkward shouldn’t really matter. It’s not my body. It’s whoever is considering the abortion’s body. And, as always, medical emergencies and extreme circumstances are always trump.

Birth control: good, amazing, wonderful. Hormonal is a little awkward, if only because it’s accidentally giving some fish sex changes… but on the whole? Love it. Each successful use of birth control (and I’ll count the morning after pill here) is one less potentially unwanted fetus later.

Abortion? I’m pretty sure no one’s considering it easy or cheap birth control, because it totally isn’t. I’d like to think everyone thinks it over and knows their best options.

… I’d love for there to not be that many though. Birth control for the win.

Am I totally off base here?

Sorry for dragging the conversation back…

Sonia
Sonia
8 years ago

First time commenter. Want to say I largely enjoy your blog. I generally don’t comment because I generally agree with you. However, while I also think there is something potentially deceitful about this hacking OkCupid thing, I don’t think it’s as sinister (at least in his case) as you think.

Dating is a numbers game. I don’t mean that in the way MRA mean it, as if the more girls you screw the more man you are. I mean that finding someone special is really hard, and your chances of finding someone who will make a lasting connection can only be higher if you meet more people. Like his girlfriend said, the whole concept of OkCupid, and “being a match” off of some profile, is rather superficial, with or without hacks, but if it leads to real interactions that allow both parties to get to know each other, then that’s valuable. I don’t know if I think that it’s a waste of people’s time, unless dating in general is wasting people’s time, because it usually doesn’t work out. Or you might think it’s a waste of people’s time because OkCupid’s matching psychology is so sound, and hacking it somehow distorts their wonderfully-researched matching engine, in which case that’s a whole ‘nother rant altogether.

Like you, I’m a little skeptical about how honestly he answered those questions, but supposing that he told the truth, I don’t see it as a terrible thing to figure out what questions matter most to people. That’s a “game” we are encouraged to play: finding common ground, knowing what’s important to others, listening. As long as he’s not boiling people down to just a handful of stats, I don’t necessarily have a problem with him using a couple of indicators to get an in-the-flesh introduction, and see where it takes him. He’s not doing what the PUA’s are, which is to attempt to reduce women to certain triggers to fulfill their own sexual gratification. I think he’s doing a sincere search for a meaningful relationship via a medium in which communication is constrained, and he wants to know what’s the best way to communicate in it (literally constraint optimization in CS terms).

And I guess as a Computer Scientist, I see this experiment as highly interesting. I mean, you pick him apart for the algorithm failing because his current girlfriend wasn’t its result, but that’s almost beside the point. This was really exemplary work and data collection, again not because women are stats or anything, but because OkCupid profiles certainly are, and it’s academically fun to see how they work and whether they’re meaningful. And from a personal standpoint, it tells me that Chris McKinlay is an incredibly intelligent and analytical human being with a hands-on will-do attitude, all things I find attractive in a potential date.

The worst thing you can accuse him of is being insensitive to the girls he treated as data points and creating an experiment of questionable ethics, and that is an entirely valid criticism. Alas, it’s a problem that dogs a lot of scientists, particularly social ones: how do you design an experiment that isn’t exploitative AND isn’t self-defeating by the frame of your experiment. In his case, I don’t think it’s malicious, but I do think it’s selfish and inconsiderate, but not specifically misogynist.

Timothy Horrigan
7 years ago

Before he started the project, he had been on only 6 first dates. The project at a minimum led to a lot more first dates: 88 in a few months, one of which resulted in true love.

sparky
sparky
7 years ago

We don’t care, Timothy. How many dates the guy went on does not actually negate the douchiness.

It’s the Night of the Living Dead Threads!

hellkell
hellkell
7 years ago

Zombie attack! To the mocking stations!

LBT
LBT
7 years ago

At least it’s not Graeme again?

Timothy, the ends do not justify the means. Especially when the “ends” are some first dates. Yeesh.

cassandrakitty
cassandrakitty
7 years ago

On the plus side, at least Timothy understands the virtues of brevity, unlike Sonia.

LBT
LBT
7 years ago

Yeah, though he doesn’t seem to have even read the post, since he seems to think the spamming was what found him the love of his life.

Seriously, how many of these fuckers are DEFENDING a spambot? Spambots are the jock itch on the crotch of humanity!

marinerachel
7 years ago

Boooooooo,I thought it would be Graeme again!

Puddleglum
7 years ago

Boooooooo,I thought it would be Graeme again!

And yet they both link back to their fb accounts…

cassandrakitty
cassandrakitty
7 years ago

Male privilege in a nutshell – having no fear that openly provoking a bunch of people while linking to your real name and identity could result in negative consequences for you.

sparky
sparky
7 years ago

Zombie attack! To the mocking stations!

Aye aye, captain!

Resistance is futile.

brooked
7 years ago

If I had to chose a thread to be uselessly necro-trolled it would be this one because the rakish cat in photo is the fucking bomb. I love his élan.

Kim
Kim
7 years ago

Wow, Timmy’s website is one of the worst looking ones I have seen in a long time.

The 90s called Timmy – they want their HTML back.

katz
7 years ago

Aye aye, captain!

Catpian

ahmad
ahmad
6 years ago

Did anybody see his actual interview?

He studied WHICH questions to answer, because dating websites have several thousand questions.

He also specifically mentions that he answered all the questions honestly, since it would be counterproductive to lie.

I’m not saying that doing all the bullshit that was mentioned is creepy, I’m just saying it’s aimed at the wrong guy.

If so inclined read the original article everyone cites. I narrowed it down to this one from wired.com

All the best, 2 years to late.

http://www.wired.com/2014/01/how-to-hack-okcupid/

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