OkStupidity by the Numbers

(or my year on OkCupid)


Not too long ago, a friend of mine decided to try online dating. I only found out about it because he happened upon my own online profile, which leads my to my first confession of the day: I’ve been dating online for close to a year now, and honestly: I’ve stopped being embarrassed about it. Anyway, said friend — who shall, of course, remain nameless — had all the usual uncertainties about putting himself out there on the internet, and, because I’m nice (or maybe because I like to feel useful), I offered to help him out, based on my own experiences online. Well, I overthink just about everything I do, so of course I got to analysing — in depth — the last year of online dating. For your edification (and specifically for the friend in question: you know who you are), I present the results of my obsessive over-intellectualising.

Second confession of the day: I joined OkCupid to play a prank on an ex. I’d just been through two rather nasty breakups, the second of which had involved a boyfriend who cheated on me with a girl he met online. I’d never really taken online dating seriously, but listening to the recently ex-boyfriend wax rhapsodic about this girl he’d only actually met once in person did at very least bring the notion to the forefront of my attention. So I went online, signed up for OkCupid, created an account for an imaginary avatar, and set about to work some mischief.

As far as the prank on the ex goes, it was resoundingly successful: he finished the experiment with egg on his face but no real harm done, which is pretty much how any good prank should go down. But even after the practical joke was over, the avatar I had created turned out to be remarkably informative. I did an extremely solid job setting her up: she was attractive and interesting, but not unattainably so, so her profile got a lot of attention, and I got a lot of practice navigating the world of online dating — enough to consider it worth setting up a real profile for myself.

Fast forward just shy of a year, and, while I’m no expert, I’ve been doing this long enough to have noticed some pretty clear trends. Let’s break it down:

I have three online profiles: the original (now mostly abandoned) avatar, who was incredibly useful as a screener for potential dates when I first got started; my real profile, which is the source for most of the past year’s by-the-numbers breakdown; and a male profile that I set up for a couple of months so that I could view things from the other side of the chessboard.

Actually, let’s have a look at the chess metaphor, because not only is it inaccurate, it’s grossly unfair. If OkCupid is a game of chess, men are playing blindfolded, on a timer, with only half their pieces (if that); women get all the pieces, unlimited time, and Gary Kasparov whispering tips into their ears. I set my guy up to be slightly but not unbelievably above average: his pictures showed a cute 25-year-old with blue eyes and a lopsided smile; he was an articulate English literature grad student at UC Berkeley, with a part-time job beta-testing a PlayStation controller mod for people with limited dexterity, thanks to an injury from a recent cycling accident from which he was still rehabilitating. He was shy, polite, but not too much of a wallflower, and, if I’m honest, an amalgam of a number of guys who’ve asked me out over the years.

When I first created his profile, I just let him sit for a while: I knew from my two female accounts that new profiles get prominently featured on the homepage and thus get a barrage of attention in the first few days. What I forgot to consider was that my existing dataset was two female accounts. Not having tried a male account before, I didn’t realise how different the vista was. I sent my creation out into the world, waited for the floods of attention, and got…nothing.

Well, not quite nothing. I think, in the first week, three girls visited his profile. In the second, maybe three more. None of them wrote to him. One of the visitors gave him a second look after he checked her profile out in turn, but she never communicated. It didn’t take long to realise that for the experiment to progress I would have to be more proactive, so in the third week I started actively visiting girls’ profiles. The activity level increased — maybe one time in four he would get a visit back — but still, no one wrote.

Eventually my male avatar — let’s call him David — managed to actually get some interactions going, but it was uphill all the way. The one girl who eventually messaged him first was sweet and articulate, but — putting this as kindly as I can — extremely unphotogenic. I don’t know why she was dating online; whether it was lack of time, an experiment or any one of a number of other reasons, but I’ve no doubt she was far more successful attracting men in person, where a vivacious personality can more easily make up for looks outside the conventional standards of beauty. She and David sent a few messages back and forth before she disappeared, along with her account. Of the girls that David messaged, maybe one in ten replied, and of those, precisely three turned into conversations more than two replies long. One conversation went on for a good few weeks; unfortunately, there’s a limit to how far an experiment like David can progress, so I let him bow out gracefully around the point I began to worry the girl was actually showing a real interest in him. These days David’s profile is active but mostly abandoned; I check on it every so often out of curiosity, but the lack of activity when I leave it to its own devices is pretty telling.

As male users go, David was, I think, less active than the average OkCupid user, but he was also fairly carefully crafted to attract attention from a particular female demographic. If David had not been of my own creation, and he had sent me a message, it would have warranted a second look. Would I have replied to him? Sadly, probably not: not because there was anything wrong with him, but because when you play the OkCupid game as a girl, it’s an entirely different set of rules. Here’s David’s breakdown by the numbers:

  • Average unique weekly visitors: 3
  • Average weekly messages received: ~0
  • Average weekly messages sent: 12
  • Response rate: 10%
  • Actual conversations: 3
  • Potential relationships: 1

That’s a pretty pathetic breakdown, and a lot of work for very little reward. Conversely, here are the numbers for my own profile:

  • Average unique weekly visitors: 142
  • Average weekly messages received: 56
  • Response rate to messages received: 5%
  • Average weekly messages sent:< 1
  • Response rate to messages sent: 100%
  • Actual conversations: ~35
  • Potential relationships: hold your horses, that’s a whole different ball game

If poor David could see my numbers, he’d probably cry. Now, I put a fair amount of time and effort into my profile, especially the pictures. The good part about being an obsessive overthinker is that I didn’t put anything on my profile arbitrarily: OkCupid’s own blog (which I kind of love) uses its ridiculously large dataset to make observations about OkCupid’s users, including which types of profile and picture are statistically more effective. Yes, I date by math. The point is, once I sent little virtual me out into the world, I didn’t have to do anything. Thanks to my false persona I was prepared for the onslaught, but it still took me a little by surprise: after all, the persona was created specifically to attract attention, while the real profile was for me, as unfabricated as these things can possibly be, and I think my expectations were unavoidably coloured by my complete inability to find a date in the real world. Online, it was as though the rule book was being re-written, and I had just been handed the pen.

For example, one of the first things I found out was that if I so much as visited a man’s profile, I was almost guaranteed a visit back, and had about a 60% chance of getting a message from him. Now, to be fair, I’m fairly by-the-numbers pretty — slim, long neck, big eyes, blah blah blah — so I don’t know how it is for girls who maybe have a more unusual look or a worse selection of profile pictures, but still. That’s like having six out of every ten guys in a bar offer to buy you a drink just because you walked in the door.

Another thing that stuck out to me was how many men treat this like a statistics problem. In a way, it’s fair enough, because it is: statistically, David’s breakdown is fairly typical for a user of his demographic, which means that you have to put in a lot of work to get any kind of return. But the shocking thing was how many men are idiots about it. A few particularly egregious examples:

  1. The copy-paste. Sometimes it’s obvious (worst case for me was what looked like a form message where he couldn’t even get the variables right: last time I checked I played the violin, not softball); sometimes less so. The longer I’ve done this, the better I’ve become at noticing the indicators of a form message, even a good one. I’m helped by having a false avatar who appeals to the same demographic as my real profile: if I suspect a message is a copy-paste, I’ll check the avatar’s messages and a good percentage of the time I’ll find the exact same message in her inbox. It’s lazy, it’s insulting, and I suspect it comes from a dating advice website or book: “Find a good opening message that works, and then throw in a few details about her to show you’ve read her profile”. Whoever wrote that advice should die: not necessarily because I can’t see the point he’s trying to make, but because it’s so easily lazily misinterpreted. We’ll come back to that.
  2. The “How’s your weekend going?” opener. Aside from being so simple and vague it’s basically another copy-paste, it puts all the work on me. I don’t think men realise that, in its own way, being a woman on OkCupid is just as much work as being a man. It takes effort to sift through all the sludge, keeping track of visitors/messages is a bloody nightmare, and the amount of crap that ends up in a woman’s inbox can be frankly demoralising — more on that later, too. Just initiating a conversation isn’t nearly enough: I need something I can latch on to, otherwise it’s straight to the reject pile. Plus, call me old-fashioned, but I find it way too familiar as an opening. My friends hail me with “Hey, how’s it going?”; from complete strangers I expect a little more decorum.
  3. The “hey howz ur wknd goin?” opener. Just bloody shoot me. The sad thing is, I don’t think every guy who’s sent me some variant of this is a hopeless idiot or pathological douchebag, but that’s certainly how that comes across. What makes it worse is that I make it perfectly clear in multiple places in my profile that poor spelling and grammar really rub me the wrong way (something I’m disappointed I feel I have to state outright: the fact that my own profile is written with great care for spelling, grammar and syntax should be enough to invite messages in kind). The above is the worst of its kind, and occasionally annoys me enough that I’ll send something scathing back, but laziness of expression is so pervasive on OkCupid it’s quite disheartening. It might save time and allow you to get more messages out per week, but it definitely means you’re fishing the shallow end of the gene pool. Allowances are always made for non-native English speakers: I once had a several weeks-long conversation with a guy that took place almost entirely in French.
  4. The taking small details in my profile as invitations — badly. For example, I state fairly explicitly that I have a thing for piano players (talent at the piano has to be my single biggest turn-on). That is not an invitation to tell me you’ve always wanted to learn the piano, or you’ve been teaching yourself to play Skyfall on your brother’s keyboard. I will gladly answer questions about the chocolate clarinet I made for a friend’s post-concert celebration — how I made it, what the occasion was, whether it was delicious (it was) — but don’t say, “Cool, you made a chocolate clarinet!”, because I already know that. Recently I added an addendum to my profile stating that anyone who sent me a variant on “hey howz ur wknd goin” would be chopped into small pieces and fed to the seagulls at Fisherman’s Wharf. Did the number of that kind of message go down? Sure, but only as much as the number of stupid jokes about overfed seagulls went up. Again, I think this comes from a dating advice website: “Talk about an interesting detail from her profile to show how attentive you are”. Not bad advice in and of itself, but the key phrase is “talk about”, not “acknowledge that there exists”.
  5. Talking about sex in the first message. Again, this is just lazy. I’m as forward-thinking as the next girl about sex, but, just as you wouldn’t go up to a woman in a bar and say, “How about a ride on my penis?”, opening with sex online displays a shocking lack of decorum. It also displays an alarming lack of awareness: in light of the ongoing discussion about rape culture and the objectification of women, I sincerely doubt opening with talk about sex works as a viable shortcut so much as it paints you rather alarmingly as a sexual aggressor.
  6. The customer feedback survey. I’ve left this one until last because the last guy who did this to me caught me on a bad night, and the new one I ripped him explains a lot of why the blind numbers-game approach bothers me. The customer feedback survey is never a first message: it comes a couple of weeks after a first message is ignored, and contains some variant of “Please answer these three simple questions about my message/profile so that I can improve my odds when I send messages to other women”. The one to whom I wrote the response below made a point of stating that the OkCupid metric listed us as a 99% match, which for some reason was the thing that hit my bezerker button. Anyway, my response is copied below, in all its glory:
“You’re the third person to send me a customer feedback survey, and it’s getting quite annoying. Let me clear this up for you. Maybe you can pass it on. Being a girl on here — especially one with good photos — is a pain in the ass. I average close to a hundred and fifty visitors a week, and four or five messages a day. I’m a career woman with hobbies and friends, and the *only* reason I am dating online is that I barely have time in the week to feed my cats, never mind seek out new people. With that in mind, no: I will not answer your little survey, and understand that the only reason I’m replying at all is that I literally *just* got home from work, and I can never manage to go right to sleep immediately after a long day. So here’s how this works, from my side of the fence. When I have time to check OkCupid, I have a look at my messages. 90% of them get ignored outright. Sometimes it’s an unattractive profile picture, sometimes it’s an idiotic message, sometimes it’s oversharing, and more often than not it’s poor spelling and grammar, which I cannot abide. Again: I get four or five messages a day and well over a hundred unique visitors a week. I can afford to be choosy. If you’re eliminated in round 1, there is no round 2. There are no callbacks, no wildcard slot, no save from the guest judge of the week. Round 1 eliminees who message again usually come across desperate, and typically get blocked. Of the messages I don’t ignore, the pricelessly stupid ones sometimes get a satisfyingly insulting response. I live a stressful life, and if I have to take that stress out on someone else sometimes, I’d much rather it be some stultifying anonymous hack online than one of my friends. Of the remaining messages, only the very top few merit a reply. You have to really earn it. Offers to play chess, clever wordplay and suggestions of rare classical music performances usually get my attention. If I have time, I will have a quick skim through my visitors. Visitors get a visit back if they are drop-dead gorgeous, have an uproariously witty username (or one that refers to Greek literature, classical music or fine art), or explicitly state that they play the piano to a professional or near-professional standard. All three criteria are preferred, and are the *only* circumstance under which I will send a message first. So there you have it. That’s how I play this game, and it’s worked out pretty well so far. As for why I didn’t message you back: the answer is simple. I am in a position of extreme privilege on this site, and I am aware enough to take advantage of it. My standards for potential dates are astronomically high, and for one reason or another — and probably several — you don’t measure up. I’m under no obligation to reply to you, answer your questions, or even be particularly polite. Consider yourself lucky you caught me on a night of insomnia. So next time you feel like re-messaging a woman who didn’t respond to you, re-read this and remember: I may be privileged here, but I am not unique. Any woman interesting or attractive enough to merit a message in the first place most certainly does not have the time, the inclination or indeed any obligation to reply to a second inquiry after she has rejected the first. I hope this has been educational. And by the by: the OkCupid personality analysis can be informative, but in reality it’s as good as meaningless. Everybody lies, everybody has someone they’re trying to impress, and the only real indicator it offers is no more accurate than what anyone with decent people skills could figure out in a few minutes of chatting with a stranger. 99% looks great on paper, but in practical terms it means nothing.”

Before anyone says anything: I know. That was cruel. I don’t regret sending it — clearly I had some issues I was working through that night — but I could probably have been kinder. Having said that, it’s all true, and it comes back to what I was saying earlier about it being hard work to be a woman dating online. Is it easier for women to attract interest from men than the other way around? Absolutely. Again, I’m self-aware enough to realise that just being a woman — never mind a relatively photogenic one with a well-written profile — puts me in a position of extreme privilege on OkCupid, and I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I never got this kind of attention in person. But it is bloody hard work sifting through that attention for the few gems, and it can be absolutely demoralising to open up your inbox, see four or five new messages, and discover that they’re all crap.

And about that 99% thing: OkCupid’s metric is not useless — far from it, in fact. I’ve found that 75% is roughly the cutoff: below that, it’s likely a prospective date and I differ on fundamental points; above it, and statistically it’s generally worked out that we get on. But the OkCupid bot is not remotely infallible, because humans are bizarre, mercurial creatures. From my own experience, the man I found most attractive, both physically and in conversation, was an 81%; my most awkward date ever, including non-OkCupid dates, was with a 99%, and, of the two OkCupid members I’ve slept with, one was a 96% and the other was a 76%. My longest-running OkCupid “relationship” was with a 78%; my best friend and the person with whom I spend the most time is a 91%, but we’d make a lousy couple (and trust me, we’ve tried). Honestly, I’ve had better luck in the 80-85% range than I have closer to 100%; whether this is because variety is the spice of life or because the higher rating puts a certain pressure on the first date I’m not entirely sure.

Since we’re back on hard numbers, let’s break my experience down a little further. Not counting friends who’ve accidentally run across my profile and exchanged a message or two, I’ve had probably 35 or so real conversations with other OkCupid members. Here’s how things break down past the conversation stage:

  • OkCupid members with whom I’ve been on at least one “date”: 18
  • Members with whom I’ve been on more than one date: 12 (I think)
  • Members I’ve kissed: 8
  • Members who really sucked at it: 1
  • Members I’ve slept with: 2
  • Members who were really good at it: 2 (score!)
  • Members who successfully asked for a date in the first message: 3
  • Dates to whom I sent the first message: 3
  • Dates so awful I had to ask a friend to rescue me with a fake emergency call: 1
  • Men I rejected after more than one date: 2
  • Men who reacted badly: 2
  • Men who rejected me after more than one date: 2
  • Men who did so via text: 2
  • Men who apologised for rejecting me via text: 1
  • Men who remain my friends after dating was taken off the table: 4
  • Number of first dates that involved a drink/dinner: 11
  • Number of first dates that involved a play/movie/opera: 4
  • Number of first dates that involved a game of chess: 1
  • First dates that involved something more unusual: 2
  • Longest OkCupid “relationship”: 6 weeks
  • OkCupid members in whom I’ve seen serious long-term potential: 1
  • Percentage where that potential has panned out: 0%

There you have my dating life by the numbers. Interestingly, the Venn diagram of those numbers doesn’t overlap in nearly the places you’d expect it to. The few places it does offer some interesting observations: firstly, either I’m really lucky, or the aggressive member-screening pays off beyond siphoning out the members who can’t spell: no bad sexual experiences, and only one lousy kiss (balanced, I might add, by one that pretty much made me see stars). And, while there have been a few occasions on which it’s been obvious that there is no physical attraction, most have been amicable evenings anyway, with only one so mind-numbingly awkward I had to call for backup.

Statistically — and here we get a little personal, though I’m sure at least some of this applies more generally than just to me — unusual dates have the highest success rate (defining success as my wanting a second date after the end of the first). The fastest I have ever said yes to a date was at an invitation to the opera: twenty-seven minutes from receipt of message to hard yes, and twenty-six of those twenty-seven were spent figuring out whether I could get out of work a few minutes early to make curtain. Incidentally, the opera or symphony are fantastic first-date venues: they demonstrate an appreciation of culture, they provide material for conversation, and — perhaps most importantly — the opportunities to actually converse with your date are broken into manageable chunks (thirty or so minutes before the curtain goes up; fifteen at intermission; an hour over a drink after the show, or ten minutes while waiting for a cab). Plus, if you’re smart about it, you can get two tickets to the symphony for less than you’d spend on dinner at a decent restaurant. Just sayin’. And while I’ll rarely turn down a free dinner if the person offering it interests me, I’m definitely beginning to view offers of a drink with less charity. It seems somehow lazier, and I like to keep a clear head when I’m meeting someone for the first time.

I think the biggest surprise for me in all this wasn’t the number of dates I’ve been on, or the variety of men or even how generally positive the whole experience has been: it was the way the dynamic changes when the woman is the one to message first. One of my three messagees was quite early in the process — before I had a decent dataset from David, and before I’d figured out the majority of OkCupid’s code (because it is a code, and learning to crack it has, I think, helped lead to my overall success with this experiment). He was a software engineer: articulate, entertaining, very well-read, interested in classical music, and exceptionally photogenic. My reaction to his profile picture boiled down to “He’s pretty: I want one”, even before I actually read his profile. We went out a few times, and it was not unenjoyable, but it became clear to me fairly soon that something fundamental was missing and it would be best to break it off before anyone got too emotionally invested.

The problem, as poor David can attest, is that men don’t get messaged very often, and when they do it’s typically by women who clearly don’t get many messages themselves. A woman who isn’t unattractive, socially maladjusted, a few apples short of a bushel or obviously deranged doesn’t need to send out messages: the messages come to her. Conversely, if a woman like me — and again, I’m by-the-numbers pretty — sends a message first, it’s an indicator of extreme interest: far more than if a woman approaches a stranger at a bar. It says you’ve taken the time to read the profile, and that something you found there was so compelling you couldn’t wait for the almost inevitable first message a few more visits to the profile would get you. It’s a powerful statement, and one I certainly underestimated in this particular case. Breaking things off with he’s-pretty-I-want-one was painful, awkward, and very unpleasant, and I haven’t been the first to send out a message since then.

What else have I learned about OkCupid? Well, to quote Dr House: everybody lies. How I figured this out and how to spot the fibs are much, much harder to quantify, but part of cracking the OkCupid code is learning to recognise where people are likely to lie, and what their choices of untruth actually say about them. Putting a profile on a dating website is exactly like wearing makeup and a pushup bra for a date: you present the version of you most likely to attract interest from the type of person in whom you are interested, not the version of you that that spilled Diet Coke on your keyboard because you forgot you were holding it during a particularly gripping episode of Game of Thrones. Men lie about sex: women lie about relationships. No one is the height they say they are, and men who “admit” that The Notebook is a guilty pleasure are only saying that because they’re attracted to girls who like movies like The Notebook. There are books that could be written about the intricacies of the lies told on OkCupid; I won’t here, but suffice it to say that the lies are far more informative than the truths if you can figure out how to recognise them.

I’ve learned a fair few things about myself along the way. I’ve learned I don’t particularly like making out in the park unless it’s balanced with plenty of conversation — sorry, but there are only so many ways I can lock lips with a fellow before I feel the need to start making knock knock jokes just to liven up the pace. I’ve learned I like to be perceived as sexually agressive, but I prefer the man to actually make the first move. I’ve learned I prefer taller guys, but I’d much rather make jokes about my own height than listen to someone else do it. I’ve learned I lean towards men a little older than me, but there are idiots in every age bracket. Athleticism is sexy; bragging about it is not. If you’ve had interesting experiences, for God’s sake talk about them (I’ve told the same handful of anecdotes on eighteen dates, and I’m getting sick of the sound of my own voice). Intellectualism turns me on, as does skill in science or math, but not at the expense of social skills. And finally, a guy who plays the piano really well still makes me melt (major bonus points for an excellent singing voice, too).

A small postscript: the friend whose foray into online dating inspired this post has been on one date, and it was such a disaster he’s almost completely lost faith in online dating as a medium. The best friend who matches me at a 91% has realised that he has much better success with women in person, and has basically — and understandably — concluded that the amount of work a man has to put into online dating isn’t worth it for him. And me? Well, I certainly haven’t found the love of my life, but I’ve had a lot of fun and gained four good friends so far. The one fellow I thought might turn into something but didn’t still keeps in touch with me via text. Almost a year in and eighteen unique dates down with no relationships longer than a few weeks to show for it, I certainly felt the fatigue for a while, but over the last couple of weeks the quality of messages has taken a surprising and sudden upturn, so I’m not done with the medium yet — and, while being on OkCupid hasn’t necessarily improved my love life in any meaningful way, it has done wonderful things for my self-esteem. In the meantime, if anyone knows a tall, handsome, single classical pianist in the Bay Area, then please: give him my number.

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