The mere myth of compatibility

When I saw the latest blog post from OkCupid yesterday, I eagerly devoured it along with most of the internet. This isn’t just personal for me, obviously—understanding and dissecting how major dating sites function is a core part of my business.

Let’s start with some links, shall we? You know, for those who like to be over-informed. 🙂 We’ve got the original post entitled We Experiment On Human Beings! (weird title case and flippant punctuation theirs :), we’ve got a guest Kottke post about why we don’t seem to mind as much as we did with Facebook; we’ve got a sensationalist headline from Vox with the astute conclusion that the Kottke opinion may just be a difference in the size of each site’s user base; a piece from Mashable that perhaps jumps the gun about how much this will impact OKC’s user base; a NYTimes piece with interviews of OkCupid users; a Harvard Business Review piece exploring the ethics; an obligatory jaded Gawker opinion that cherry-picks Christian Rudder’s most flippant statements (of which there were plenty); a lazy, reductive, and kinda inaccurate but millenial-speak summary from Pop Sugar for humor; and this magical piece from Uproxx which is not worth reading but which totally wins the award for best zany stock photo to accompany this topic:

What, exactly, is he doing? Soldering our hearts? Only Uproxx truly knows.

Okay, so let’s call it done in terms of the reading list. You guys get the idea. OkCupid is creepy in ways we weren’t necessarily all acutely aware of two days ago.

Let me cut to the chase: I’m an online dating coach for a living, and I think this is no big deal. I mean yes, it’s creepy in the same way that it’s creepy to see Apple track your location data for a seemingly unnecessary cause, and it’s creepy in the way that getting catalogs for cribs when you’re three months pregnant is creepy. But is it, say, any creepier than Amazon telling you which camera other customers bought after viewing the overpriced Nikon some Instagram dude recommended, or Netflix recommending movies you might like based on a certain film you loved? I don’t think it is.

Furthermore, there’s no escaping creepy, not really. (I mean, we’ve all been aware of recent NSA headlines, right?) OkCupid author Christian Rudder’s main quotable quip was pretty succinct and dead on:

That’s how websites work.

To expand, websites haven’t always worked like this, not in the early internet age. And plenty of entities that aren’t websites also use potentially creepy tracking algorithms—you know those “rewards” cards that you have to use to get a decent price on local microbrews at the chain grocery store? That’s the same kind of tracky-creepy stuff, yet most grocery stores have what I think of as the opposite of a web presence. Heck, some experimental health and life insurance models are based on using data sets from your lifestyle habits (gym membership; purchase habits for food, liquor, cigarettes, condoms, pregnancy tests…) to track how healthy and claim-free you’re likely to be as you age. Tell me THAT isn’t creepy; yet most of us have a card to get that $4 off, right? All I’m saying is, Rudder’s point stands, even if it was a bit reductive: the WORLD today is creepy. But when the creepiness is difficult to avoid, and/or it provides a potential benefit to our lives, we put up with it and sometimes even embrace it.

I’m frequently critical of OkCupid—even to this day, I still see so many annoying gender-imbalanced angles in their “research*,” and I’m super frustrated by their proud lack of any QA and by their major security flaws. BUT, the site WORKS. It’s popular; people use it; that gives it enormous value to help effect positive change in your life. You can hate it if you want and leave if you must. But in reality, migrating to another dating site is unlikely to solve your inherent being-creeped-out problem.

As weird as it may sound, I trust OkCupid with my data more than I trust most other dating sites. Don’t even think for a second that other dating sites are LESS creepy than OkCupid when it comes to how they use and game your data—they just don’t gleefully inform you of it. Everyone does testing and experiments and has fake profiles that are largely unethical but that skate unnoticed. Shady overseas services will sell profiles in the aggregate to startup dating sites looking to seem worth joining. (Trust me; I’m in the LinkedIn group they constantly spam with offers. It’s gross.) At the end of the day, while I wish OkCupid sucked less, I trust a bunch of nerdy computer dudes with my data more than a bunch of clueless out of touch marketing peeps who aren’t nearly as directly involved in the data operations and tweaks of their own company. (AHEM, eHarmony.)

I actually think Rudder did us a weird favor by outing these experiments. The most interesting one is annoyingly buried at the end of the piece, and isn’t what most summaries focus on. So I’ll do it for you! 🙂 He points out that with many experiments, the conclusion was that match percentage isn’t nearly as sound a predictor as it leads people to believe.* (Emphasis mine.)

OkCupid definitely works, but that’s not the whole story. And if you have to choose only one or the other, the mere myth of compatibility works just as well as the truth.

I’ve been telling people to quit obsessing over match percentage on OkCupid for years! Hell, I have tons of clients who completely avoid it, preferring to answer zero questions and show up as zero percent compatible with everyone. I have other clients who rock stealth accounts, which allow them to keep the prying Q&A on a more private profile so their government employers couldn’t out them for it (for example). I work with people who are on the autism spectrum or who are just very literal-minded to carefully strategize about each match question, because they sometimes give off impressions and corresponding match or enemy percentages that are wildly inaccurate based on their different communication or learning style, or their limited grasp of English, or any number of other factors. Frankly, match questions are OkCupid’s strongest and weakest point all rolled into one, and I’ve long opined that they should clarify to users just how trivial those numbers actually are, or at least lessen the weight of them in the overall UX of the site.

So, friends, don’t go deleting your OkCupid profile in a fit of ragequit frustration just yet. Instead, take advantage of them for your own metrics-gaming analytical purposes.

Use OkCupid’s experiments to your advantage

1) Try ignoring match percentage for a full month of site usage, instead searching on keywords, distance, and any combination of advanced search features that you feel excited to try out.

2) Consider creating a brand new profile, with a snappy new username and three to five super-flattering pictures, but not answering a single match question. Mention somewhere in the profile that after reading that blog post, you wanted to experiment with a no-numbers version.

3) Be open to starting conversations with people you might not otherwise hand-pick. Try letting a chat get started before you just reject them over some line or some awkwardly cropped avatar; see where it goes during a little self-imposed love-is-not-really-blind-but-maybe-is-developing-astigmatism-or-something period.

4) If you want to be a true data nerd about it, track your progress compared to the engagement you’ve doubtlessly been tracking these past few single months anyway.  Track visitors, star ratings, incoming conversations, outbound ones, your initial impressions versus how things went in person, etc. Whatever your nerdy little heart desires.

5) Write to me and tell me how it goes. I’m betting you have a more enjoyable dating life, if nothing else. [icon-heart]


*Right down to this blog post. Why not post two versions of the same study, instead of just saying “oh and the other one was similar” if your post is about cold hard user data? Why only post the experimental hot girl pic, and not a male or GBLT-inclusive version of the same experiment? Why lazily assume that hotter men are assholes instead of simply stating the discrepancy in data, since one white dude who did no research probably doesn’t actually know the cause of the discrepancy, yet goes on to prove that the mere power of suggestion can convince us he knows stuff he doesn’t? Yeah, I’m being hyperbolic, but this post and the data it surveys so clearly smack of coming from a largely male team. I wish they pushed harder for a more balanced perspective now that they can absolutely afford it.

**To Rudder’s credit, he points out that some of his career success is based on this ability to manipulate people into thinking data or statistics are more significant than they actually are. I’m happy to see that aired out more honestly than ever before!

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