One of the more popular news stories being shared around the web this week has been the story of how Chris McKinlay, a mathematics PhD candidate “hacked” OKCupid in order to find love. Naturally, this inspired both wonder – OMG, nerds can break the code and get laid! – and misaimed anger by people who seem to believe that McKinlay was doing something fiendish and underhanded, a digital pick-up artist who dehumanized women by trying to reduce seduction into numbers and becoming an online Svengali.
The truth however, was much more prosaic. McKinlay did what many nerds have done before: he attempted to solve a problem by taking his strengths – research, coding and statistical sampling – and applying them to the task at hand. Rather than finding some ruthless exploit in the human psyche that was somehow vulnerable to math, he was, put simply, attempting to moneyball online dating.
Of course, McKinlay is hardly the first person to attempt to make the system work for him… or even to apply it successfully. Amy Webb, a digital strategist with Webbmedia Group employed a similar strategy of data mining, mathematical analysis and matchmaking algorithms to solve her own love issues.
And you can do it as well. You may not be a brilliant mathematician able to write custom code to seek out your perfect – or near perfect – match… but you can definitely crack the code and make OKCupid dance to your tune, giving you more success in online dating than you’ve ever had before.
How They Did It
While their methods differed – McKinlay started by examining how to affect OKCupid’s match percentages while Webb was developing an algorithm to predict which men on JDate had long-term potential – their approaches were the same: both McKinlay and Webb wanted to know how to make themselves more appealing to their potential online partners. In order to do so, they both engaged in researching just what made someone desirable online through a combination of coding, A/B testing and statistical probability.
Part of OKCupid’s appeal is in the compatibility matching. The site uses a specific compatibility algorithm based on comparing the questions answered by two possible matches, how each person hopes the other person would respond and what weight they give that question. In OKCupid, your compatibility score directly affects the visibility of your profile to other people. The lower your compatibility with an individual, the less likely you were to show up in their searches. McKinlay, frustrated that he had such low compatibility with women in the Los Angeles area, used bots to gather information on how women answered questions and sorted them into discrete groups based on their interests. After determining which groups were most interesting to him, he would create two profiles crafted for maximum appeal for women in those particular clusters.
Webb, on the other hand, wanted to find The One1 and created a large data set of features that she felt were critical for long-term potential and gave them numerical values, weighted for importance. If an individual didn’t reach a certain score, then she wouldn’t go on a date with him. If he didn’t reach an even higher score, then there wasn’t likely to be any long-term potential and she was less likely to consider him as marriage material.
To help craft a profile that would appeal to the sort of man she was attracted to, she decided to become him; she created ten separate male profiles in order to collect data on what sorts of women she would be competing with. Over time, she developed enough quantitative data to determine issues like profile length and qualitative data to help determine what to write in that profile and how. And in her own words it made her “one of the most popular people on the Internet”.
Now unless you are already a mathematical genius with a head for working in Python and a knack for turning seemingly unquantifiable data into weighted values, this can seem so out of your wheelhouse as to be completely useless. Except it’s not. You can take what they learned and hack your own OKCupid profile without having to do the high-end coding first.
Content Is King
One of the first things that Webb found is that content was the most important part of dating profiles. According to her findings, writing long and elaborate dating profiles is actually detrimental to online dating success. In fact, the most popular men and women were far more concise, using 97 words on average. Now while you don’t necessarily want to restrict yourself to an arbitrary number you do want to keep things short and to the point. The web is increasingly the domain of shortened attention spans; unless the content is extremely compelling, the longer a person spends on an individual page decreases proportionally with it’s length2. TL;DR isn’t just a Reddit joke, it’s how many people treat online interactions.
So take the same advice that every editor gives aspiring writers: kill your darlings. A well-written dating profile is a well-edited profile and that means being willing to take a hacksaw to it. Be as verbose as you want when you write it… then take another pass and slash it to the bones. Having restrictions can work to your advantage; it means you can’t afford to fuck around. If you’re going to try to keep it to 97 words per section, then by Zod you want them to be the best 97 words possible.
Moreover, how you write is equally important. Not only do you want to write in complete sentences with proper grammar, but you want to make sure you’re using optimistic language. One of the keys to online dating is to be as approachable as possible and there’s nothing more likely to turn a prospective date off than being a bundle of negativity. Complaining, whinging, even deprecating humor all reads as a giant sign that screams “DO NOT DATE”. There is not a woman in the world who’s dream man is somebody who sits around grousing about how life is unfair and the world sucks and by the way, would you like to touch his penis?
If you want people to be interested in contacting you – or receptive when you contact them – then you have to make it as easy as possible for them and every burst of negativity is the verbal equivalent of putting another barrier in the way.
Understand How To Work the System
One of the benefits of McKinlay’s data mining the OKCupid compatibility questions was that it showed him not only which questions to answer but how to answer them. Without getting deep into the math of how OKCupid computes compatibility (which you can read about here if you’re interested), you want to answer questions that correspond with how your potential match hopes you will. The more questions that match the other person’s desired answer, plus the weight given to their desired answer, the more compatible you are. If you want to be a more desirable match, then you have to answer the questions the right way.
To start with: Clear out all of your questions and start from scratch. Don’t get too caught up in answering questions. Not only is every question a chance to lose compatibility points, you hit a level of diminishing returns very quickly. You only need 100 questions to get a 99% compatibility rating with a .01 margin of error. Once you get past 500 questions, the potential value diminishes; there’s not a material difference between 99.7% and 99.9% The most it will affect is your position in people’s searches, which, while good, isn’t the only thing you should be relying on. But more on that in a minute.
The next rule is to be honest. Lying – or making “joking” answers – is going to only give you false matches with people you’re not actually compatible with. The name of the online dating game is to actually date them, and picking the wrong people because you tried to play silly buggers is only going to waste your time; they’re not going to want to fuck you just because you’re a 90% match when you’re hiding potential deal-breakers.
The third is to answer carefully. You want to pick questions that will give you the most amount of compatibility points with your match, and to weight them appropriately. “Mandatory” gives a weight of 250 points to a matching answer while “Very Important” gives you 50 and “A Little Important” only gives you 1. You should never answer below “Somewhat Important”, and even then you should use that sparingly and only with binary answers.
The fourth is to pick the right questions. You want to start doing your research on which questions matter to the women you’re interested in. McKinlay found the 500 most popular questions through a combination of Python scripting and creating bogus profiles, which frankly isn’t an option for most of us. However, OKCupid actually gives you that information, if you know how to look for it. You can actually compare your answers with your prospective matches by looking at the “The Two of Us” tab and choosing the “Questions She Cares About” option. These will tell you which questions your match weighted the most heavily. By answering several from each of your most compatible matches, you will develop a strong cluster of questions that will help tweak your match percentages. Again, I stress that it’s vitally important to honest answer honesty. There’s no benefit to be had by trying to guess the “right” answer rather than the one that actually matters to you. If the question doesn’t matter, then just skip it. It’s better to not risk losing the compatibility points.
Do Your Due Diligence
The match percentages are only the first step. Those make you more visible. It’s your profile that needs to intrigue them. If your profile doesn’t let them know that you’re exactly the person that they’ve been looking for all this time, then they’re never going to want to message you, never mind actually go out on a date.
One of the keys to a good profile is to make sure you have one that’s getting the right kind of attention. You want one that prompts people to respond and shows that you have plenty of commonalities. Except… you’re not going to hit this magic ratio on the first try. Or on the second. Or even the third. There will always little things you can do that maximize your returns. You should be revising your profile regularly; there is always room for improvement, especially when it comes to to making sure that other people like what they see. And that means doing your research.
Both Webb and McKinlay went out of their way to research both the people they were interested in but also their competition in order to stand out. McKinlay would data-mine his top matches to find what they were interested in and responded to and made sure to adjust his profile accordingly; when teaching proved to be of great interest to the women he was interested in, he made a point to emphasize his job in academia. Webb created male profiles in order to figure out how to fine-tune her photo choices; as it turned out, the most popular women who were interested in the same sort of men she was had photos very different from the ones that she was using.
Remember, you’re not spear-fishing for specific women; you’re looking for trends of interests that occur with greater frequency amongst the women you’re interested in. Don’t forget: you’re marketing yourself to women in general. The more appealing a product you can put out there, the better your response rate will be.
One of the things that was notable about McKinlay’s results: he was getting more cold-emails from women messaging him first than he was sending out. He made a point of getting women’s attention by visiting their profiles – as many as possible in fact. He wrote a Python script to systematically visit every profile within his parameters that had a high match percentage, sorted by age; it would start at the oldest potential matches and work it’s way through all of them at 41 years old before resetting and then going through everyone who was 40 years old. As a result: he was showing up in the visitor logs of hundreds to thousands of women. Out of those, a percentage would be intrigued enough to click through and visit his profile – which at this point had been carefully optimized and incredibly intriguing. As a result: women would start to send him messages, giving him a better rate of return of interest than he was getting by cold-contacting women.
Keeping your profile’s visibility high is an important part of online dating success. In addition to visiting the profiles of your matches, you want to use OKCupid’s code to your advantage. Regularly updating your main photo helps keep your profile active and appearing higher in the searches; the more recent your activity, the higher you’re going to appear in people’s searches than less-active profiles. Use other attention getters like Quickmatch and profile rating to have the system help make sure that your profile appears in front of other people.
You also want to make sure that you give women the option of making the first move. Not only does society encourage women to be passive, but many men react badly when women shuck the gender roles and make the first move. A line in the “message me if…” should make it clear that you’re more that happy for women to contact you if they’re interested.
It also helps to message women who have expressed interest by visiting your profile. If they stopped and checked you out, it’s worth sending them a message to say hi.
Online Is Only Half The Battle
It’s important to remember: the key to online dating is offline. Just getting responses to your profile and messaging back and forth doesn’t do you any good. No matter how much intellectual chemistry you may have online, you need the physical chemistry for things to work out. One of the key points in McKinlay’s story is that he went on over 50 first dates… and far fewer second or third ones before meeting his girlfriend. This, ultimately, is a part of dating; there are going to be people that you just don’t work with for one reason or another, and no amount of talking on IM or Skype or on the phone is going to let you know in advance. So if you want things to work, you’re going to have to put in the effort to have an amazing first date and see where it goes.
There will be false positives. There will be people with whom you simply aren’t compatible or who just aren’t interested in you.
But then you’ll find the ones who are. The ones who get you, and that hit all the right notes for you too.
And as frustrating as those false starts may be, the ones that work will be worth it. So take some time, put in the effort… and you too can hack OKCupid into finding the relationship you’ve always wanted.