Whether you’re an online dating evangelist or you wish the word “tinder” still only applied to starting a campfire, there’s no denying that the internet has changed the way we meet, hook up, and pair off. One of the biggest players in the online dating world is OkCupid, that pioneer of the questionnaire-based matching algorithm, and Christian Rudder is the man behind the machine.

Christian is also the author of Dataclysm, a book released last week that takes a hard look at the massive amounts of data that OkCupid has compiled. What do our messages truly say about us as a society? Can these data sets help combat societal ills like racism and the double standard around sex? And, oh yeah, how come OkCupid still doesn’t have trans options?

These are all questions I put to Christian in anticipation of his talk at JCCSF next Tuesday, September 16, when he'll be interviewed by The Bold Italic's Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Maerz at 7 p.m.

You talk a lot about covert racism in the United States and how you can see it at work in the data sets from OkCupid, which I think is probably one of the most interesting parts of the book. Do you think that the data you guys are collecting just shines a light on those prejudices or do you think it could help in combatting them. 

I mean, I think it would be overstating OkCupid’s importance in the world to say that we’re going to be at the forefront of fighting racism. I think that’s a way bigger problem that’s beyond any website.

But I do think that racism is undoubtedly a social ill and, like any illness, you need to be able to diagnose it accurately, pinpoint certain causes as far as you’re able to. So having more information can’t help but help that process. Especially if it’s race, which is so emotional and engrained. It’s something that draws so much rhetoric and not as much fact so it’s good to be able to point to numbers and say, “Look, I know you’re arguing this thing and coming at from certain principles. This is a place where numbers are extremely helpful.”

Another point that I pulled out is when you talk about the fact that only 0.8% of straight women say that they’re looking for casual sex on OkCupid, compared to much higher numbers for everyone else. [Ed note: straight - 6.1%, gay men - 6.9%, lesbians - 7.0%) The theory that you throw out there is the cultural taboo against women being sexually forward but in my experience as a woman who used OkCupid, you get a lot of explicit, nasty messages if you say that’s what you’re looking for. 

I think there’s a question of whether or not those nasty messages are part of that taboo in a particularly sordid way. I chose to frame it that way and there probably was a deeper discussion than maybe I gave it in the book.

The other side of that taboo is not necessarily the social pressure of a woman saying she’s into casual sex but also that when a woman says she’s interested in casual sex, guys think they can treat her a certain way. Women, regardless of what they’re looking for, often don’t want to be treated whatever way that is.

Right. It’s like, casual sex doesn’t mean you have to mean you send me a picture of your dick. 

Exactly. It doesn’t have to be gross; it doesn’t have to be demeaning, obviously. But often it’s taken that way.

A lot of people come down on a moral side of big data. They’re either totally pro-big data or totally anti-big data. You seem a little morally ambiguous about it. 

I sometimes feel like the conversation can be a little religious. I’m not a religious person in the traditional sense of the word, so it’s hard for me to buy into any single monolithic ideology. I do see that people are kind of unquestionably for it [big data] and some people are unquestionably not for it. I guess I just like to ask questions.

I think that as an academic you came across as pro-data, pro-collecting data, and pro-dissecting data but as an entrepreneur your stance seemed a little less clear. 

Yeah, I have a foot in each camp. I don’t use Facebook and Twitter that much and I would be bummed if my daughter she spent all day on her phone when she hits that age when I used to spend all day outside.

Yet, at the same time, my company makes apps for these phones and these tablets so I can see both sides of it.

Why don’t you use Facebook and Twitter much? 

I’m not really a sharer in that sense. It’s not like I’m especially tight-lipped but I’m not a performer. Especially for Twitter, it always feels like a stage to me and I just don’t like that feeling and so I can never get myself to do it.

I asked the hive-mind (read: Facebook) if they had any questions for you and came up with a couple that aren’t necessarily related to the book. One of the big ones was why OkCupid hasn’t released self-identifiers for trans people yet. 

Sure. That’s something we’re working on. People hold up Facebook as an example and I’m really glad they can do it but it’s a far more complex problem on OkCupid.

The problem that we’re still grappling with is that people who identify with a gender-option that is pretty rare, it could very easily come to pass that no one ever searches for that, which would ruin their OkCupid experience.

How do you connect people who are open to dating people with deeper identifications with those people? How do those two groups find each other? If it was as easy as a drop-down menu, we’d have done it a long time ago.

Learn more about Christian’s work with big data - and ask him some burning questions of your own - at his talk at JCCSF next Tuesday, September 16, at 7 pm.

Photo by Victor G. Jeffrys II