Love and Rationality: Less Wrongers on OKCupid

Last month, Will_New­some started a thread about OKCupid, one of the ma­jor play­ers among on­line dat­ing sites—es­pe­cially for the young-and-nerdy set, given their math­e­mat­i­cal ap­proach to match­ing. He opened it up for in­di­vi­d­ual pro­file eval­u­a­tion, which oc­curred, but so did a lot of fruit­ful meta-dis­cus­sion about at­trac­tion in gen­eral and on­line dat­ing mechanisms in par­tic­u­lar. This post is a sum­mary of the parts of that thread which speci­fi­cally ad­dress the prac­ti­cal as­pect of good pro­file edit­ing and cri­tique. (It also in­cor­po­rates some ideas I had pre­vi­ously but hadn’t col­lected yet.) A lit­tle of it is spe­cific to OKCupid, but most of it can be ap­plied to any dat­ing site, and some to dat­ing in gen­eral. I’ve cited points which came from sin­gle com­ments (i.e. not sug­gested by sev­eral peo­ple); if I missed one of yours, please com­ment with a link and I’ll add the refer­ence.

On OKTrends

“Wait a minute,” I hear ex­pe­rienced OKCers cry. “Why rein­vent the wheel of pro­file anal­y­sis? OKCupid already has a blog for just that, and it’s called OKTrends.”

OKTrends has its mer­its, but it also has one ma­jor flaw. Wei_Dai summed it up well by ob­serv­ing that OKTrends does not make “any effort to dis­t­in­guish be­tween cor­re­la­tion and cau­sa­tion,” cit­ing this post as an ex­am­ple. The rea­son for that is ob­vi­ous: the first pur­pose of OKTrends is to bring traf­fic to OKCupid. It does this with en­ter­tain­ing con­tent about racy sub­jects, and rigor­ous anal­y­sis comes (op­ti­misti­cally) sec­ond. Of course, data­dataev­ery­where added, that’s ex­actly the Myth­busters for­mula. They’re both junk food sci­ence, but it’s also the only look at their data we’re go­ing to get, so I’ll link a few rele­vant OKTrends posts in the ap­pro­pri­ate sec­tions.

How to Write a Good Profile

Okay, you’ve cre­ated your ac­count and an­swered a few ques­tions. Now it’s time to sum­ma­rize your whole per­son­al­ity, your ap­peal, and your wor­ld­view in ten lit­tle text boxes. Where to be­gin?

The ob­vi­ous an­swer is to re­ply to the ten pro­file prompts with your an­swers to them. Don’t fall for it! What you write in your pro­file, along with your pic­ture, will be the whole sense of your­self you con­vey to other peo­ple. Do your fa­vorite me­dia se­lec­tions and the fact that you need oxy­gen, wa­ter, food, shelter, and two other ob­vi­ous things to live con­sti­tute 20% of your iden­tity?

Con­crete Ad­vice #1: Don’t just fol­low the prompts. Think about what you want to say in your pro­file, and then fit that into the an­swers.

Or don’t even find a way to fit it into the an­swers. I’ve seen ex­cel­lent pro­files which liter­ally ig­nored the ques­tions and just said what they had to say. But fear not, I won’t leave you en­tirely promptless. There are two goals in writ­ing a good pro­file:

  • Hon­esty (so as to find peo­ple who will ac­tu­ally like you)

  • At­trac­tive­ness (so that they will re­al­ize, upon read­ing your pro­file, that they might like you)

We’ll ad­dress these one at a time, be­gin­ning with hon­esty.

There’s a dis­tinc­tion in an­thro­pol­ogy be­tween “an­ces­tral traits,” whose genes go back so far that they are com­mon among a huge va­ri­ety of species, and “de­rived traits,” which evolved re­cently enough to be an in­for­ma­tive de­scrip­tor of a group. Pen­tadactyly is an an­ces­tral trait, and is not spe­cific enough to tell a hu­man from a newt; op­pos­able thumbs are a de­rived trait, and in­di­cate that you’re prob­a­bly (al­though not nec­es­sar­ily) look­ing at a pri­mate. You can speak similarly of traits which are memetic rather than ge­netic; an­ces­tral traits are shared by al­most ev­ery­one in the cul­ture, and de­rived traits by smaller sub­groups.

Ances­tral: “I like listen­ing to mu­sic and hang­ing out with my friends.”

Derived: “I like tak­ing pho­tographs and play­ing board games.”

Con­crete Ad­vice #2: Write about your de­rived traits, not your an­ces­tral ones.

No­tice that it’s not about speci­fic­ity. The sec­ond set of in­ter­ests isn’t very much more spe­cific than the first one. They’re just less com­mon in­ter­ests. There­fore, they do a bet­ter job of iden­ti­fy­ing where you fit in per­son­space, and in fewer words. For the con­ve­nience of new­com­ers to on­line dat­ing, here’s a quick laun­dry list of cliches which are so com­mon as to tell the reader noth­ing about you:

Con­crete Ad­vice #3: Omit all of these: “it’s hard to sum­ma­rize my­self” “what should I say here” “I’m con­tra­dic­tory” “I’m nice” “I’m shy un­til you get to know me” “the first thing peo­ple no­tice is my eyes” “I need [ob­vi­ous literal things] to live” “if it were pri­vate I wouldn’t write it here” “you can ask me any­thing” and ex­plicit sug­ges­tions that the reader should date you, even tongue-in-cheek

That said, it is hard to sum­ma­rize your­self. It’s hard to rec­og­nize the parts of your­self which mat­ter, and even harder to re­mem­ber them later when you’re star­ing at a form on a web­page. Fur­ther­more, self-iden­tity is sus­cep­ti­ble to en­vi­ron­men­tal pres­sure, and it’s easy to just write up the stereo­type of the group you feel you be­long to. If you’ll par­don me quot­ing my­self:

The first few ver­sions of my pro­file were geared to show off how geeky and smart I was. This con­nected me to peo­ple who spent a lot of time play­ing table­top role­play­ing games, read­ing fan­tasy nov­els, and mak­ing pop cul­ture refer­ences to ap­proved geeky tele­vi­sion shows, none of which are things which in­ter­est me par­tic­u­larly.

Even­tu­ally I re­al­ized that I am not ac­tu­ally just popped out of the stereo­typ­i­cal mod­ern geek mold, and it was lazy, in­ac­cu­rate, and in­effec­tive to act like I was. Since then I’ve started do­ing the much harder thing of try­ing to pin down my spe­cific traits and tastes, in­stead of tak­ing the party line or ap­ply­ing a genre la­bel that lets peo­ple as­sume the de­tails. In that way, OKC has ac­tu­ally been a big force in driv­ing me to un­der­stand who I am, what I want, and what re­ally mat­ters to me.

Con­crete Ad­vice #4: Learn what you ac­tu­ally care about. Get into the habit of notic­ing things in your day-to-day life which ex­cite you, please you, in­furi­ate you, or make you think. That’s what be­longs in an hon­est de­scrip­tion of you.

That’s tough, but it’s eas­ier than it sounds. Re­mem­ber that the rea­son you’re be­ing hon­est is that you want to at­tract some­one who will ac­tu­ally like you, not just the per­son you claim to be. Don’t worry at this stage about ap­pear­ing “in­ter­est­ing” enough, or whether the generic av­er­age air­head rep­re­sented by OKTrends would like you. In­ter­po­late put it perfectly:

No one you want to meet would find you bor­ing.

Keep that in mind when you’re won­der­ing how to bal­ance the hon­esty and at­trac­tive­ness goals. Yvain won­dered why some users openly ex­press non-main­stream views about tran­shu­man­ism in a dat­ing pro­file; this may be hon­est, but to a lot of peo­ple it won’t be at­trac­tive. Ap­pren­tice was sur­prised by the num­ber of LWers who talked about out­doorsy in­ter­ests, which can in­timi­date geeky home­body types. In both cases, whether the in­ter­est war­rants a men­tion de­pends on how sig­nifi­cant that in­ter­est is to your per­son­al­ity and lifestyle.

Con­crete Ad­vice #5: The more you men­tion some­thing, the more im­por­tant it will seem to be to you.

rhol­ler­ith_dot_com came at the same point from a differ­ent an­gle, with the spe­cific ad­vice not to go into too much de­tail about work. What field you’re in is in­ter­est­ing; what pro­ject has been tak­ing up your work hours lately prob­a­bly isn’t. Un­less your job is par­tic­u­larly cool or a big part of your iden­tity, it doesn’t de­serve more than a sen­tence or two. The same goes for aca­demic fields and most hob­bies. If it would only gen­er­ate con­ver­sa­tion with some­one who shares your job, ma­jor, or hobby, leave it out (un­less those are the only peo­ple you’re look­ing for). More gen­er­ally, keep track of how much you men­tion a given topic in your pro­file. Count in­stances, if you have to. When you sort the list by quan­tity, what mat­ters most to you should be on top. Right be­low that on the fre­quency list …

Con­crete Ad­vice #6: Write about the traits or in­ter­ests that you want a po­ten­tial part­ner to share.

De­scribing what you want in a part­ner is about as hard as de­scribing your­self, and for the same rea­sons, but you can ap­proach it the same way (by pay­ing at­ten­tion and think­ing about it in real-life con­texts, not just when work­ing on your pro­file). There are two rea­sons to make a point of in­clud­ing those things: It will ap­peal to peo­ple who share those traits with you, which is by defi­ni­tion your tar­get au­di­ence; and OKCupid con­nects peo­ple in part based on shared in­ter­ests listed in their pro­files, even the ones that the user didn’t choose to high­light. More to the point, the adorable but non­sen­tient car­toon match­ing robot does that. Which means:

Con­crete Ad­vice #7: Do not men­tion your dis­likes in your pro­file un­less they are oth­er­wise im­por­tant.

As far as I can tell, once OKC has de­cided you like some­thing, there’s no way to ex­plic­itly tell it you don’t. Even re­mov­ing it from your pro­file doesn’t kick in im­me­di­ately. If some­one searches for, say, “sci­en­tol­ogy,” and you put in your pro­file that “sci­en­tol­ogy is crap,” you will come up on the search. This is not what ei­ther of you is try­ing to ac­com­plish. Be­sides, that doesn’t de­scribe you. If you’re an ac­tive or­ga­nizer of ma­jor sci­en­tol­ogy protests and are look­ing for some­one to do that with you, okay, put it in. Short of that, don’t give your­self key­words you don’t want.

One last thing about search­a­bil­ity be­fore we move on.

Con­crete Ad­vice #8: Fill out any ap­pli­ca­ble side­bar in­for­ma­tion.

Ali­corn’s ex­am­ple was re­li­gion: If you like the idea of be­ing found by an athe­ist look­ing for an­other athe­ist, make sure OKCupid knows that you are one. I would go a step fur­ther and recom­mend filling in as much as you can. Sin­gle com­pleted fields, or sin­gle omit­ted fields, will look more sig­nifi­cant than they prob­a­bly are—but do leave out any where all pos­si­ble re­sponses would be mis­lead­ing. (I’ve left the “chil­dren” field blank, for ex­am­ple, be­cause I don’t want them now but might some day, so nei­ther “wants” nor “doesn’t want” is cor­rect.) If you want to ex­pound on any of your an­swers, of course, you can do it in the pro­file body, as long as it main­tains an ac­cept­able im­por­tance/​fre­quency ra­tio and doesn’t make your pro­file un­read­ably long.

Con­crete Ad­vice #9: Write be­tween 50 and 350 words in most of the fields.

I got these num­bers by mea­sur­ing an­swers which make my eyes glaze over (on the long end) or which made me think “that’s it?” (on the short end). This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. The self-sum­mary is jus­tified in be­ing a lit­tle bit longer; the six things are jus­tified in be­ing shorter. Your fa­vorites sec­tion should be one of your shorter an­swers, un­less me­dia and food hap­pen to be re­ally im­por­tant to you (in which case, write about why, don’t just list them).

Last but not least, here is the most-dis­cussed and hope­fully most ob­vi­ous thing you can do to im­prove your pro­file.

Con­crete Ad­vice #10: Upload at least one clear, flat­ter­ing, de­cent re­s­olu­tion photo of your­self. No ex­cuses.

I’m just go­ing to hand it over to mat­tnew­port for a sec, re­spond­ing to com­ments about not be­ing “pho­to­genic.”

… the word ‘pho­to­genic’ should be like a red flag to a ra­tio­nal­ist bull … peo­ple who are ‘not pho­to­genic’ are not made of some differ­ent type of ma­te­rial that re­acts differ­ently to light than pho­to­genic peo­ple.

He goes on to point out that OKTrends did not one but two posts on what makes a good (read: mes­sage-at­tract­ing) pro­file pic­ture. The first one is about con­tent (poses, props, situ­a­tions), and the sec­ond one is mostly about cam­era choice and timing. If you can read those and then turn around and take a good photo of your­self, great. If not, and es­pe­cially if you’re frus­trated by the task, en­list the help of an ac­tual pho­tog­ra­pher. You may know one. One of your friends may know one. A lo­cal skil­led am­a­teur may be will­ing to trade prints for prac­tice. Who­ever they are, find them. If you claim to be try­ing to pre­pare a good pro­file, and you don’t have a pic­ture on it that you’re proud of, you’re fool­ing your­self. (Hypocrisy alert: I haven’t yet done this. But I just talked my­self into it, so I will.)

Yvain defends, quite fairly, that all of his pho­tos are of him out do­ing in­ter­est­ing things which don’t lend them­selves to clean sparkling images: back­pack­ing, scuba div­ing, and so forth. He’s right to want to keep those to show off his ac­tivi­ties; how­ever, four differ­ent peo­ple com­mented that his pic­tures could be im­proved. I think it’s clear that he would be well-served by adding one more, whose sole pur­pose is to flat­ter him phys­i­cally.

How to Make It a Bet­ter Profile

Con­grat­u­la­tions! You’ve writ­ten a com­pe­tent pro­file. But the only per­son who’s seen it yet is the least ob­jec­tive per­son in the world with re­gard to your at­trac­tive­ness. Time to get a sec­ond opinion. The pur­pose of the pro­file cri­tique is to ver­ify that you’ve met your two goals in pro­file writ­ing: hon­esty (have you ac­tu­ally de­picted your per­son­al­ity?) and at­trac­tive­ness (does the pro­file en­courage mes­sages?).

The best peo­ple to judge your pro­file’s hon­esty are those who know you well. They’re the only ones who can tell whether the words you chose give an im­pres­sion of you which matches the im­pres­sion you give in re­al­ity. Un­for­tu­nately, this means they also have pre­con­cep­tions about you. Bet­ter would be a cri­tique from some­one who formed their in-per­son im­pres­sion only af­ter read­ing your pro­file, but if your pro­file is work­ing that well it’s prob­a­bly fine. In any case, ask your hon­esty eval­u­a­tors if there’s any­thing in your pro­file which sur­prises them, or any­thing they’re sur­prised you omit­ted.

There are two schools of thought on whom you should ask to judge your pro­file’s at­trac­tive­ness. One is to ask the sort of per­son you’re try­ing to at­tract: mem­bers of your preferred gen­der, and prob­a­bly of your own cul­ture. They can tell you whether your pro­file is at­trac­tive to them and whether they’d mes­sage you based on it … or at least, whether they think they would. The other school of thought is that the right peo­ple to ask are those who share your gen­der/​cul­ture prefer­ence, and have been suc­cess­ful at­tract­ing such part­ners. They can tell you what has em­piri­cally worked for them and com­pare notes. Both have po­ten­tial bi­ases, but any­thing both types of critic agree on is prob­a­bly cor­rect. (I didn’t see any gay users pipe up in this part of the con­ver­sa­tion, but I’d love to know how the over­lap be­tween the two sets af­fects their feed­back.)

Of course, a once-over by a rel­a­tive stranger (e.g. an­other LWer) can be use­ful as well. They can tell you what as­sump­tions they make about you, know­ing lit­tle more than what you’ve cho­sen to write. Have your critic read the pro­file line by line and write down their im­pres­sions as they have them; when they finish, they can add the over­all gist they got from read­ing. The idea is to give you a ful­ler pic­ture of the reader’s im­me­di­ate re­sponses—ideas which could stick in the sub­con­scious even if they’re for­got­ten con­sciously by the end. Th­ese are the de­tails that they’re filling in be­tween the lines, and that’s what you want to be sure is ac­cu­rate. In par­tic­u­lar, this is good for en­sur­ing that your fre­quency of men­tions ac­tu­ally matches your de­gree of in­ter­est; wh­pear­son no­ticed such a dis­crep­ancy in mine, which I cor­rected.

It should go with­out say­ing that any pro­file ed­i­tor should also be en­couraged to re­port prob­lems with the lan­guage or flow. Get rid of ty­pos, clean up the gram­mar. Check for sub­tler things as well, like un­usual words re­peated close to­gether, or us­ing the same sen­tence struc­ture over and over. If a joke isn’t funny or a refer­ence doesn’t make sense, re­place or omit it. All of these er­rors are dis­trac­tions from what you’re try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate, and pro­duce fleet­ing im­pres­sions of con­fu­sion or ir­ri­ta­tion which are then as­so­ci­ated with your pro­file. Other than that, write in a style which is nat­u­ral to you. That style is a fair part of your self-de­scrip­tion.

Fi­nally, re­view your pro­file from time to time. Every few months is a good min­i­mum, give or take any life-al­ter­ing events. The pur­pose of this is to en­sure that your pro­file changes as you change, to stay up-to-date on the hon­esty goal. For the same rea­son, cy­cle in a new pic­ture pe­ri­od­i­cally, es­pe­cially when your ap­pear­ance has changed. If you re­ally want to be thor­ough, re-an­swer old match ques­tions from time to time as well. They’re the biggest part of how OKCupid con­nects you to other peo­ple, and up­dat­ing them keeps it cur­rent on your tastes and val­ues. That this re­quires con­tin­u­ing to think about and ad­just your tastes and val­ues as time passes is just a perk.