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The love equation

Little Rock native Christian Rudder's $50 million idea to turn dating into math.

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Do you like the taste of beer? Do you prefer the people in your life to be simple or complex? Do spelling and grammar mistakes annoy you?

If you answered yes, complex and no, you're 60 percent more likely than others to sleep with someone on a first date, twice as likely to be a liberal and slightly more than twice as likely to be at least moderately religious, according to findings Little Rock native Christian Rudder published in early February.

Rudder, 35, majored in math at Harvard and uses it daily at OkCupid.com, the free online dating site he and three other Harvard mathematicians founded in 2004 and recently sold to IAC's Match.com for $50 million.

Most days, Rudder works as data miner, parsing through a sample size that would've made Alfred Kinsey's head explode — 776 million answers to relationship questions from seven million users. Give him a couple hours and he could tell you everything from the sexual proclivities of 30-year-old bisexuals living in Boston to how people's willingness to role-play rape fantasies and hygiene correlate state by state.

In practice, perhaps it's less thrilling. "I sit in front of Excel and groan most of the time," Rudder said a few weeks ago (as part of the deal with Match.com, OkCupid's staff and autonomy remain intact). Still, somehow he manages to find narrative in the numbers. Monthly, he posts summaries of his latest analysis on OkTrends, OkCupid's research blog. Last year, for instance, aided by a wealth of charts and graphs, he statistically proved that gay people aren't interested in straights and that, just as women's magazines have been telling us for years, women are indeed most sexual in their 30s. He also produced numbers that suggested that iPhone users have sex more often than owners of other smart phones. "Finally, statistical proof that iPhone users aren't just getting fucked by Apple," he quipped on his post.

Like other, more famous contributors to pop science — Malcolm Gladwell, Mark Kurlansky, the hosts of "Stuff You Should Know," the "Freakonomics" authors — Rudder has a gift for distilling complex subject matter, OkCupid CEO Sam Yagan said recently.

"He's probably the best person in the world at making something that's very geeky and very data-oriented accessible through humor and through a writing style that makes everyone feel like they're smarter than they are because he's giving them access to all this quantitative insight."

But it's the comic streak on Rudder's blog that seems to set him apart from his pop-science peers. It's a sense of humor that's almost transgressive, suggests his college roommate and longtime musical collaborator Justin Rice.

"He'll take some idea and push it to its extreme, where it's really, really funny but also has this darkness to it that makes you concerned on some psychological level, though you're mostly just laughing."

Rudder's early work online reflects that sensibility. As editorial director for TheSpark.com, a website that his partners in OkCupid co-founded in the late '90s, he helped position the site, tonally, somewhere between The Onion and a sneering reaction to reality TV.

One of his early hits, The StinkyFeet Project, documented the progression of an athlete's foot infection he invited. Over the course of nearly a month, he filed daily reports with increasingly viler pictures and insight into life with a festering foot ("Remember how your crotch feels after a day of swimming at the beach? Right. Well, now I got a pair of crotches on the ends of my legs, and they both feel goddamn disgusting").

For a follow-up, he presaged the premise of "The Biggest Loser" and stood it on its head by convincing a relatively skinny man and woman to try to gain 30 pounds in 30 days to win $3,000. Readers were treated to "scientific" weight-gain charts, daily photos and forums where they could suggest tips. The man met the challenge. The woman failed, but by only four pounds. TheSpark awarded them both the money.

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Last Halloween, Rudder and his wife Reshma traveled from New York to visit Rudder's parents in Little Rock. Rudder timed the trip, he said, partially so that he could help his father scare neighborhood kids in his parents' elaborately decorated front yard.

At lunch a few days before, he talked about his fondness for Little Rock. Skinny and boyish-looking, he wore a pink hoodie, jeans and sneakers and spoke in quick, nervous paragraphs that betrayed only a hint of a Southern accent, perhaps owing to the fact that his family moved around the country and lived for a while in Mexico City before settling in Little Rock when he was 11.

"I was a little bit dorkier than most," Rudder said of his teen years. Still, he played on the Central High baseball team — he made all-state at second base his senior year — and he didn't want to leave Arkansas when it came time to go to college. The urge to stay in Little Rock persisted; he ended up taking a year off after his freshman term to live in Little Rock.

After college, he formed a band called Bishop Allen with his roommate Justin Rice, with whom he'd written songs throughout his time at Harvard. The group's debut album, "Charm School," sounds like the best of sunny '60s pop, full of jangly guitars, handclaps and guy-girl duets. Even without label support, a PR agent or a manager, it scored favorable reviews from the likes of NPR and Rolling Stone.

Since, the band's released two more albums and 12 EPs, toured internationally and landed a number of songs on TV shows, movies and commercials (you've almost certainly heard the song "Click, Click, Click, Click," which was used prominently in a Sony camera commercial that aired not long ago — "take another picture, with your click, click, click, click camera," goes the hook).

In 2001, Rudder found himself in front of the camera, acting fairly prominently, in "Funny Ha Ha," the feature film debut of his other Harvard roommate, Andrew Bujalski (Rudder and his two roommates lived on Bishop Allen Drive in Cambridge). The film, about aimless post-collegiates with poor communication skills, earned strong reviews and is credited with spearheading a DIY film movement often branded as mumblecore. Despite the success of the project, Rudder doubts he'll do it again. "If I had to bet, I'd say no. I'm definitely not dying to do it again. Not that it was bad. It was just one of those things that I did one summer."

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Despite the popularity of Rudder's stunts on TheSpark, the driving engine of the site was SparkNotes, a collection of free study guides in the tradition of CliffNotes.

"CliffNotes were charging $4.95 for their books, so we made our own set of CliffNotes, we put them online and people said, 'Wow, this is great, it's free, why would I pay for CliffNotes?' " Sam Yagan said.

In 2001, Barnes & Noble purchased TheSpark, and by early 2002, Rudder and the site's co-founders were gone.

In considering a new project, Yagan said he and the other Spark co-founders and Rudder looked to replicate the SparkNotes-style business model by finding a product for which someone was charging, delivering a better one for free and generating revenue off of advertising.

In 2003, the big industries people were paying for online were porn, gambling and online dating, Yagan said.

"So we asked ourselves, 'Do we really want to be the porn guys?' And our girlfriends at the time, said, 'No, you don't.' And there was a lot of legal ambiguity around gambling, so we explored dating."

Three qualities guide OkCupid and separate it from its competitors, Yagan said recently. Price: "We're the only, or at least the best, free dating site on the web." Tone: "We've always believed that dating should be more like going to a bar than going to a shrink." And structure: "We do a better job predicting who you're going to get along with."

Perhaps because of those qualities, OkCupid owns the coveted 18-34 demographic among dating sites.

Among the traits Yagan mentions, the site's matching formula seems to be the most substantive difference between it and its peers. OkCupid matches users in a "more algorithimic or intelligent way," according to Rudder. That runs counter to most other dating websites, which match users based on similar likes and dislikes or via a secret formula created with input by a psychologist.

Those schemes don't emulate normal dating. In the real world, everyone has certain make-or-break relationship criteria. Maybe they're considerations about children, religion, politics or money. But often they might be much more specific: the ability to cook well, blonde hair, thick biceps. To some degree, the criteria are likely different for everyone. What's more, once you go beyond those essential criteria, other similarities don't matter as much. I like listening to rap music, reading comic books and watching football. Do I care that my wife not only likes none of those things, but has a whole laundry list of interests that are wholly disinteresting to me? No, I don't. And I definitely don't like myself enough to want to be married to someone just like me.

At OkCupid, users are presented a question from a pool submitted by other users and asked to answer the question, answer the same question the way they'd like their ideal match to answer it and rate the importance of their answer among four options. Answers that appear on users' profiles are either flagged public or private. Regardless, profiles display what questions users have answered and selected as mandatory. Users can search for potential matches by browsing and answering the mandatory questions required by a potential match or let OkCupid pair potential matches through its algorithm. For anyone who cares and has an advanced degree in statistics, OkCupid allows users to see the math behind the matches it suggests. 

As with movies you rate in Netflix, the more questions you answer on OkCupid, the more compatible your prospective matches are likely to be. Most of the user-submitted questions are straightforward — "Do you want children? Would you ever change your religion for a significant other? If you don't do anything at all for an entire day, how does that make you feel? Ideally, how often would you have sex? How much influence or control do your parents have over your life?" — but as one presses through the first batch of questions, odd ones pop up: "Which is bigger the Earth or the sun? Are clams real? How frequently do you brush your teeth?"

"These questions are stupid," one female friend complained after I asked her to try the site. 

Rudder is sympathetic, but said even the seemingly bizarre questions are telling. The algorithm that gives priority to questions considers how well a question divides the user base and how many people rate it as important.

"For instance, a question that's bad is 'Have you ever murdered someone?' Yes, everyone thinks that's important, but virtually no one is answering yes. So there's no point in asking it, because you already know what everyone is going to say. But when you have something instead like, 'Do you believe in God?' that's extremely important to most people no matter how you answer it."

And, perhaps not surprisingly, a statistically significant number of people rarely brush their teeth, think the Earth is bigger than the sun and that clams are rocks or some other inanimate something.

 

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OkCupid has never spent any money on marketing; instead, it's relied solely on social networks and word of mouth. When the company launched the OkTrends blog in October 2009, the initial idea was to "point out all the cool stuff we do to bring people together," Rudder said. But it quickly became a marketing force. Since it launched, the company has registered almost twice as many members per month than it did before the blog, and nearly a million readers see each post.

From early in the life of the blog, Rudder hasn't shied away from showing OkCupid users in a negative light. In one of the first and still most widely read posts, he examined how race affected messaging on the site. Some of the conclusions: Whites are more than twice as likely as non-whites to think that interracial marriage is a bad idea and more than twice as likely to prefer to date someone of their own race than non-whites. His intro jokingly flaunted the ugly truth:

"We've processed the messaging habits of over a million people and are about to basically prove that, despite what you might've heard from the Obama campaign and organic cereal commercials, racism is alive and well. It would be awesome if the other major online dating players would go out on a limb and release their own race data, too. I can't imagine they will: multi-million dollar enterprises rarely like to admit that the people paying them those millions act like turds. But being poor gives us a certain freedom. To alienate all our users. So there."

Snark aside, Rudder doesn't believe users take the blog's findings personally.

"We're definitely making broad claims on OkTrends. We're not saying that any particular person does any particular thing. We don't look through anyone's personal email. Everything we do is in the aggregate. In terms of privacy issues, we keep several steps between us and someone's personal data in an analytical sense.

"Just like in the Census, when they say this many people in Little Rock are employed or not, you're part of that data whether you want to be or not. It's hard to imagine anyone being bothered by that."

Moreover, OkCupid CEO Sam Yagan thinks potential users respond no matter what topic the blog takes on.

"You can't read the blog without thinking, 'I want to meet people who find this stuff interesting.' "

Some critics have harped on the fact that OkTrend's conclusions don't indicate anything beyond OkCupid users' behavior and opinions.

Rudder doesn't completely disagree.

"I definitely wouldn't go out and allocate public funds based on the findings of OkTrends or make public policy decisions. What we publish is the case for the set of users we're analyzing. But at the same time, the people who use OkCupid really aren't that different than anyone else."

Also, as he pointed out, OkCupid's data set far eclipses the 1,000 people Gallup typically uses. Whereas a small number of people who may not be answering truthfully or don't understand the question could greatly sway the Gallup results, the "weird, random variance evens out" with OkCupid's 7 million-strong user base, Rudder said.

Sometime next year, Rudder will likely try to make a broader pitch as he takes some of his OkCupid research and pulls from other data sources to compile a book. If sex plus "Freakonomics" can't sell millions of copies, the publishing industry is truly dead.

In the meantime, Rudder said recently he's working harder than ever before, inspired by the sale of the company. As for his new wealth (which he said was split not just among his three partners, but among investors and staff), he hasn't bought a hoverboard or solid gold Nikes or whatever it is that the young, newly rich usually buy themselves in the tech world. In fact, he said he hasn't spent any of it.

"We changed health plans, but other than that, everything else is exactly the same as it was before."

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