How to get what you want from online dating

Editor’s Note: Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. So if you haven’t got a date, and you want one, grab your smartphone or laptop and start the hunt. But since you haven’t much time to find your Saturday companion, we’re sharing some insight from OkCupid co-founder and president Christian Rudder. Author of the new book “Dataclysm,” Rudder has pored over the data we all share on social media all the time, and what’s stuck out are some interesting observations about what works and what doesn’t on OkCupid and other dating sites. Paul Solman spoke to him for a Making Sen$e Thursday report about dating. Watch that report below, and read his Q&A with Rudder.

Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor

Keep Messages Short

PS: So what works and what doesn’t work in terms of generating a conversation on OkCupid?

CR: Broadly, the thing that works is you being yourself. I know that shorter messages are better in terms of reply rate. The optimal length is something like 50 characters. Characters, not words. So very short.

You just want to get into some conversation with people, so like, “Hey, how are you doing” or “I have these tickets – want to go with me?” I would suggest keeping your profile short, especially with people living on phones these days. Text is, in some ways, on the way out, unfortunately. There are dating sites now that are just pictures. OkCupid still has a slightly older school model — if you want, you can give a self summary or describe the things that you’re into. But even before phones, the picture was 90 percent of the story for you on OkCupid, but that little 10 percent is ever more pinched.

Men, Learn Your Grammar

PS: What shouldn’t a person put in their profile or in their messaging to the other?

CR: So this is going to be for men messaging women, which four out of every five messages on OkCupid is: use correct grammar and punctuation. Do not use net speak, like WOT, W-O-T or U. We have observed that those messages get a lot lower reply rate.

PS: And why would that be?

CR: I don’t know. People don’t like them. They probably seem too casual, they seem stupid, they seem thrown off, they seem — you’re in a hurry, you can’t even type out three letters to me — I imagine. It’s hard to get at the kind of psychology behind some of these trends, but this is what I imagine is the case.

PS: So if someone is saying hello, what do you say?

Say “Holla” not “Hello”

CR: A great piece of advice for online dating is to stand out from the crowd. So greetings like “hello” and “hi” are very common. They do less well than things that are a little bit quirky or a little bit weird, like “howdy” or “holla.” The rarer your salutation, the better it does, in general.

Know What You’re Asking For

PS: Avoid physical compliments?

CR: Yeah, physical compliments are best avoided. They can feel a little creepy or something. This is your first message to someone who has never met you. They don’t know your friends, they don’t know anything about you except what you’ve written in your profile.

It also signals a physical intention on your part for the conversation. So as you can expect, it doesn’t fly very well generally, although obviously there are people on OkCupid that are looking for that kind of attention only.

PS: But one of the things I read in your book is guys who show their abs, their abductor muscles, they do better.

CR: Thank you for using the full Latin term. Sure, there’s at least one self-selecting force in play here, like guys who show their abs are guys with good abs. If every dude in this room decided to take a picture of their abs, they would probably suck.

PS: What about women? Is cleavage good for initiating conversation?

CR: Maybe not. First message, yes. Those conversations are often a lot shorter and don’t go as far. But you’re going to get more lower-quality messages. If you’re a guy showing your abs or [a woman showing cleavage], I guess with any of this stuff, whether it’s your profile text or the picture you put online, you’re going to get the conversations you’re asking for. So if you’re showing your cleavage, you’re going to get a lot of like: “Hey, sexy” and “Hey, you’re cute” and a lot more salacious stuff than that. If that’s what you’re looking for, awesome, but that is what you’ll get, regardless of what you’re looking for.

And the same with the dudes. You’re going to get people who are interested in guys with a washboard stomach and nothing else. If that’s your scene, if that’s what you want out of OkCupid, go for it. If it’s not, even if you had that body, it’s best not to emphasize that kind of thing.

PS: But a sexy look for a woman also elicits more responses?

CR: Sure, sure. Basically anything sexy, anything out of the ordinary, whether it’s something sexy – cleavage, whatever – which most photos on OkCupid are not. Or if you’re in front of Machu Picchu or the pyramids or something like this, they’re kind of like online dating clichés. You take a picture of yourself in some exceptional situation — skydiving or whatever. People always post those photos because it works – you’re saying something about yourself that begs a conversation and that’s what the users are there for.

Make Yourself Stand Out (With Your Shirt On)

PS: So the argument in economic terms is that a thick market, where there are lots of players, is more efficient than a thin market where there are only a few people bidding on prices or, in this case, people and prospective mates.

CR: Yeah, that totally makes sense. Imagine a mixer with three people. That would be a pretty rough hour if you lasted even that long in there. OkCupid, metaphorically speaking, is a mixer with four million people.

At the same time, I think for an individual crafting his online dating presence, playing the middle is a bad strategy. You don’t want to be just broadly appealing. You want to get back to these pictures of Machu Picchu or whatever it is. You need to stand out in some way because the fact that there are so many people, that the market is so thick means that you have to stand out all the more. You can’t just put yourself on the shelf and hope somebody grabs the can of soup because the price is cheap. They actually need to like you and be interested in what you seemingly have to offer. So yeah, going to a site with more users seems obviously better to me, but at the same time, having a bland, middle of the road profile with bland, middle of the road pictures seems like a bad strategy to me.

PS: Because you’re trying to appeal to too many people within that broad market?

CR: Right. Because the way love works in general, you don’t need everybody to like you somewhat – you need one person to like you a lot.

Don’t Lie on Your Profile

PS: I had a friend who went online – this is quite a while ago – and he was telling us that he had to say he’d read “The Kite Runner,” even though he hadn’t, because all the women he would be interested in would have wanted him to read it. And I thought: This is insane, because you’re pretending to be something you’re not to try to find somebody who will actually like you.

CR: Sure, sure. I don’t think that’s a creation of the Internet, either. Dudes have been making up stuff about themselves probably since there have been dudes.

How much you puff yourself up online, or offline for that matter, you’ve got to be careful with it. I’m like 5’11” or 5’10”. If show up to a date and pretend that I’m 6’4” and work out all the time, or whatever it is that I don’t actually do, that’s just going to go badly for me. So if your friend shows up and she’s like, “Oh my God, I love that passage,” he’d better be ready to BS his way through that date, because it’s just going to be embarrassing otherwise.

Women Are More Discriminating About Looks

PS: What are your favorite discoveries in the book?

CR: Kind of paradoxically, men are very open minded or very even handed with their votes of women. It’s a very normally shaped, well-centered curve when they’re rating each other on OkCupid, whereas women are much more selective, much more judgmental. Their discount is almost 50 percent off of how men rate women. So essentially, the average rating for a man is about half as high as the rating for a woman on OkCupid – in terms of looks. Women are much more discriminating – let me put it that way. I think both types of people are equally interested in having an attractive partner – those curves look the same. But women essentially give the thumbs up to only half as many guys as guys giving the thumbs up to women.

PS: But that has nothing to do with how much money the guys make, or anything like that?

CR: I know for a fact that information is very unreliable on OkCupid, and I think our users have probably figured that out. There’s a weak correlation with stated income and there’s a bunch of other stuff going on. So online, it’s your photo foremost, and then the kind of things that you’re into and the rest of your text.

PS: But I thought the standard story was that guys were almost obsessed with how women look and women didn’t care about guys’ looks; they cared about their ability to provide.

CR: I don’t know. That sounds like an outdated story to me. You don’t see them on OkCupid.

The Role of Race Online

PS: So what are the verbal stereotypes on OkCupid?

CR: Using this method, which teases out what a group talks about and the people not in that group never talk about, you find things like white men are really into stuff like woodworking, snowmobiling, a lot of jam bands and country bands, mudding. … And of course, they also disproportionately mention blue eyes and blond hair, because if you’re dividing up by ethnicity, no other groups have those traits to even discuss, right.

Whereas like Asian men, number one, I think, was “I’m tall for an Asian.” And then you often discuss the country of origin, things like K-pop, Korean pop, some dance music, some animated movies and stuff like this.

PS: And African American men? What do they talk about?

CR: I think “dreads” was the number one. Reggae, I think, was another one. Spike Lee. So yeah, we just kind of threw a billion words that are contributed into a statistical blender tagged with the race and the gender of the writer, and this is what came out of the blender, so to speak.

People tend to prefer their own race online in terms of the volume of messages. In terms of interracial dating, it is the case, not just on OkCupid but also on Match and DateHookup, black men and women get a universal discount from people of other races, from whites but also Asians and Latinos.

PS: The other groups do not want to date black men or women?

CR: They give them a rating that’s about 25 percent lower — sort of a blanket discount. If you imagine the ratings curves of the groups, the one for black women in this case is sort of shifted down towards the lower end.

PS: So the mean, the average rating is 25 percent lower than the average rating for the white woman. And that’s for men too?

CR: Yeah. That shift exists on every dating site I’ve ever looked at.

PS: Really? Am I wrong to think that’s horrifying?

CR: No, but I mean, at the same time, these are American users so there’s bias in the American mind, and that’s hard to find that surprising, I find.