Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

7 minute read

Technology

Who's Telling You The Truth About Dating Algorithms?

The online dating industry is a $4 billion business. And everyone from popular author Dr. Pepper Schwartz to mathletic OkCupid cofounder Sam Yagan is trying to crack the code for success. Business success.

You've seen the digital-age versions of self-help gurus, the ones with official titles suggesting they've cracked the code of human compatibility. Relationship Scientist. Behavioral Expert. They hold doctoral degrees. In labs, they reproduce the conditions of relationships, study interactions, generate conclusions. People of type A are compatible with people of type B. Here's why they worked. Here's why they failed. Here, read this new book.

As the global market for online dating surpasses $4 billion, the lucky ones get hired as consultants by online-dating companies. They write personality-profiling tests, tweak the algorithms. They speak at online-dating conferences, describe their unique matching approaches, and promote their books. But the ones most likely to be telling you the truth are the ones that admit that their dating algorithms are also powerful marketing tools. And they're probably math geeks. Married math geeks. 

Dr. Pepper Schwartz is no geek. But she is the author of The Love Test, The Great Sex Weekend, Everything You Know About Love and Sex is Wrong, and more. And she's a professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle who mugs on behalf of the dating site PerfectMatch.com, where she co-developed The Duet® Total Compatibility System. On the final day of this week's annual online-dating industry conference in Miami, Schwartz, a pocket-sized woman with a calming smile, told the audience her system is based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a questionnaire designed to measure how people perceive the world and make decisions. You can read about The Duet® Total Compatibility System in her book, Finding Your Perfect Match: 8 Keys to Finding Lasting Love Through True Compatibility.

Joining her was Dr. Eli Finkel (Northwestern University), Schwartz's younger colleague in the behavioral sciences, who staked out his own territory as industry-scold, denouncing eHarmony, one of the largest dating sites in the world and the first to market a scientific approach to matching. EHarmony has refused to reveal its algorithm, Finkel said, and therefore the company should not advertise a scientific approach to matching until it can show, publicly, that its system works according to the standards of scientific rigor. An up-and-comer hoping to make a splash, Dr. Finkel spoke with imploring volume and speed, as if an elaborate show of authority might convert the crowd to his cause. He does not yet work for an online-dating company.

For nearly 50 years, ever since computers were first used to help college kids hook up, people assumed, or hoped, that the fact of technology as mediator would mean not just more dates but better dates. The Great God Computer must know something we don't, the thinking went. It just must. The notion became a wonderful marketing tool—red meat for the media. As such, the math geeks who ran the first computer-dating services at Harvard in the 1960s were happy to perpetuate it. Oh yes, of course we're always refining our codes, optimizing our algorithms.

In 1966, the inventor of computer dating, a Harvard math major named Jeff Tarr, joked to a reporter: "If there's some chick I'm dying to go out with, I can drop her a note in my capacity as president of Operation Match and say, 'Dear Joan, You have been selected by a highly personal process called Random Sampling to be interviewed extensively by myself ... '" The industry's second-comer, another Harvard math geek named David Dewan, remembered: "There was a lot of randomness to it. 'Do you like pizza?' 'Me too!' 'What kind of movies do you like?' 'Romantic comedies?' 'Me too!' Then you go meet her and most of the time you put your head in your hands because she was so ugly—and she was thinking the same about you." (This was the pre-Internet era, mind you, when computers had 12K of memory. Match sheets arrived without photos.)

Their doubts aside, the young men still boasted publicly of doing it better than the competition. From the company's perspective, claiming a superior "scientific matching system" or "personality profiling test" could distinguish you from the field. In 1965, Dewan told the Harvard Crimson that his competitor's questionnaire was "less sophisticated, appealing to the big, Mid-west universities."

All these years (and all this behavior science) later, it's not the professor-backed dating sites but the ones run by math geeks that seem to be on top. At the conference, Sam Yagan, a cofounder of the free dating site OkCupid.com, strutted around, collected multiple awards (for the second year in a row), and gave a talk on how he sold OkCupid to Match.com last year for $90 million, an incredible sum for an advertising-based business model that is thought by many in the business to bring in little revenue.

Playing on their admiration and jealousy, Yagan, a Harvard grad who wears jeans and OkCupid T-shirts beneath a blue blazer, encouraged his colleagues one minute, and provoked them into fits of rage the next. At the awards dinner, Yagan seemed to privately commend a cofounder of HowAboutWe.com for the company's recent completion of a venture capital financing, in which it raised $15 million. The next day, he told the conference that historical valuations of online-dating companies don't justify large venture investments, and therefore "woe be to those who take money."

But on the algorithm panel, Yagan, the lone dating site owner invited to speak on the topic, was relatively subdued. He responded to Drs. Finkel and Schwartz with an occasional eye roll. When it was his turn, he dispatched a very brief, slide-assisted explanation of OkCupid's matching process.

The user, let's call him John Dater, is not required to answer any questions. But the site is premised on the idea that the more questions John D. answers, the better OkCupid works for him. Questions range from the abstract (Would you prefer that good things happened, or interesting things?) to the specific (How often do you feel the need to get really drunk?); from penal policy (Which of the following is the more appropriate penalty for rape: death, castration, prison, community service?) to trust issues (Would you be okay with your significant other spending a lot of time with his/her ex?); from the practical (Ideally, how often would you have sex?) to the downright intimate (How do you feel about kissing your partner after he/she goes down on you?).

For each question, John provides three answers: (1) his own answer, (2) the answers he's willing to accept from a match, and (3) the level of importance he attaches to the question: irrelevant, a little important, somewhat important, very important, or mandatory. "Our objective," explained Yagan's partner, Chris Coyne, "is to figure out what you want, rather than figure out what's best for you. So to accomplish that we play a giant question-and-answer session with everyone on the site at once." When John clicks on a new profile he's shown a "match percentage" that accounts for all the questions that both he and the potential match have both answered. If they've both answered 1,000 questions, then OkCupid's algorithm generates a match percentage based on 6,000 answers—the product of 1,000 questions times 3 answers per question times 2 daters.

The innovation of OkCupid—and what distinguishes it from other "matching" sites such as eHarmony and PerfectMatch—lies in its pliability. Coyne believes he can give members the power to sort through matches online the same way they would offline—assuming a world of perfect information. "Suppose your buddy tells you he has a girl he wants to set you up with," Coyne said. "No matter how much you trust him, you're not going to say 'yes' without asking questions first. In your mind you have a filtering process that's built in, which is different from another guy's filtering process. EHarmony would say they know all our filtering processes. We say we don't. But we can give you the tools to express your filtering process. We can show you how everyone stacks up against your filter, and how you stack up against theirs. Then you're on your own."

As for Yagan, this side of the business is not his priority, and he distances himself from the notion that they're relationship gurus. "We're a bunch of math guys," he told the Boston Globe in 2007. "We don't know anything about dating." This is typical Yagan: We don't even know what we're doing and we're still doing it better than you.

So it could be false modesty. Or it could be that there's only so much technology can accomplish when it comes to predicting compatibility. That one of the most successful sites is run by four young nerds, all of whom are married, seems meaningful.

"I don't care what matching system I have," Yagan told a reporter after the algorithm panel. "I just know I have to have one."

Dan Slater is writing a book about the online-dating business and what technology means for the future of relationships, to be published by Penguin (Portfolio) next year. Slater is the founder and editor of The LongForum, a website that promotes the best of long-form journalism.

Related: Inside The Online Matchmaking Industry's Giant Blind Date

[Image provided by ShutterStock, Thumbnail provided by ShutterStock]

loading