Innovation Hub: The Data Behind Online Dating
Online dating is big business. As of last year, it’s worth over 2 billion dollars, having grown at a steady 3.5 percent rate since 2008. And that big business has transformed the way we find love. If you’re getting married this year, there’s a one in three chance that you’ve met your spouse online. That’s a lot of wedding cake, all because of a few clicks on the Web.
To find out more about this huge industry, I talked with OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder and sociologist Pepper Schwartz about some of the fascinating things they learned when they looked at how we date online.
[This interview has been edited and condensed. For the full conversation, visit innovationhub.org.]
Kara Miller: So, the data that you get from dating sites is often really specific and precise. How much does this ability to quantify everything help us with finding someone online?
Christian Rudder: The answer to that question is the reason why we founded OkCupid. We started the site in 2003, and online dating at that time wasn’t analytical at all. We wanted to apply some math and analysis to attraction. When you’re suggesting possible matches to someone on the site, it’s very useful knowing how attractive someone is, if they have overlapping interests with other people, who they’re most likely to talk to. Information like this is super valuable to online dating.
KM: Does all this information reveal something about human nature?
CR: Well, I think anyone who’s spent a lot of time examining big data will say the same thing, that it confirms a lot of your cynical intuitions about people. Guys will send messages almost totally based on looks. People are judgmental, they’re picky, and they’re racist in certain situations. OkCupid is basically an enormous party of people milling around waiting to meet someone, judging other people and introducing themselves over and over. That gives you a lot of data, and it confirms a lot of things you’ve already suspected about people.
KM: Dr. Schwartz, did you find anything surprising in your studies of how people use online dating? Anything they might not know about themselves?
Pepper Schwartz: One of the things that surprised me most is how easily influenced people are. When I was doing online dating consulting, I was quite shocked when people would take a match recommendation way too seriously. They think there’s something wrong with them if they don’t fall in love with the people the site recommends.
KM: So how do you think online dating is changing the way we find romance? Is it just another tool that people are using, or is it something more than that?
PS: I think it’s revolutionary. Let me just talk about people over fifty. You wouldn’t find anybody after fifty before online dating. Now that you have online dating, it’s opened up a huge regeneration of people’s romantic hopes and efforts. And if you want to talk about real changes, a lot of times before online dating people would stay in a marriage because they would think to themselves: if I don’t stay here, I’ll be lonely forever. And now people think: if I really have to break this thing up, I know where to go. And that completely changes the decision-making in some people’s lives about whether they’re going to re-invest in a relationship or if they’re going to seek love outside the relationship. That’s revolutionary.
Marc Sollinger contributed to this write-up.
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