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It’s Sunday afternoon on OkCupid.com, and 27,942 people looking for love on the Intertubes. They are shooting digital winks and kissy missives into the ether, trying to chat up that cute girl who loves Nabokov, or Mr. Tall-Dark-Handsome-Good-Job-Outdoorsy-on-the-Weekends. It’s humanity’s oldest social ritual, now 110 percent electrodigitized. Is there really love out there? Can two-dimensional interactions on an LCD screen really substitute for brews at the Thirsty, or an after work softball game? The four former math majors from Harvard who founded OkCupid.com aren’t completely sure, but the social experiment unfolding on their website is already changing everything you thought you knew about dating.

The million dollar question

One thing’s for certain. On OkCupid, You can’t just walk up to someone, say hi, chat them up, and check them out. Instead, it’s courtship by proxy. Profiles, questionnaires, pictures.

Looking through profiles, I wonder: What works? What doesn’t? Retrovm from New Jersey posts that she’s found someone on OkCupid. Did she search for him, or did he reach out to her? Was it her hyper-literate un-capitalized profile sprinkled with cute obscenities and nerdy-hot sentiments like, “i can replace the logicboard in a macbook pro in approximately 31mins.and i can beat super mario bros 3 for the NES in 23mins,” that did the trick? Or was it the smattering of coy profile pictures that invited attention?

For the folks at OkCupid, these are million dollar questions. The more they can optimize the online dating experience, the more people will use their service.

One of the founders, Sam Yagan, is on the phone with me to discuss how they got into the business of romantic analytics.

“First, we’re data junkies,” he says. “All four of the founders are math majors. We just have a predisposition to data. There are all these people in the world who consider themselves to be dating/relationship experts, but that’s flawed. They either approach dating with preconceived notions or they draw on small sample sizes.”

True enough. Every supermarket glossy has “ten hot dating tips,” or, “tried and tested ways to win him over,” bracketing airbrushed celeb photos. Where does this advice come from? And how do they know it works?

Sam contends that much of the relationship advice out there is unreliable, based on small sample sizes, or biased by personal experience.

“For instance, if you’re a therapist you’re likely to have counseled several dozen clients, but they’re not random. There aren’t a lot of people who are in a position to give the right answers,” he says. “But there’s an experiment constantly being done on OkCupid, which is in these dating interactions. Why not aggregate the data?”

Since July 2009, they’ve been analyzing trends and testing popular conceptions about dating on their blog, OkTrends (blog.okcupid.com). It’s one of the first quantitative looks at the science of online dating.

Much of their analysis is hypothesis driven. For example, a dating blog might advise that profile shots always include eye contact. The team would then classify users based on whether or not they look at the camera, and see which group got more replies.

What did they find? Well, a profile picture with the subject holding booze is a shortcut to rejection alley. In terms of eye contact, girls should always look at the camera. Guys, on the other hand have better odds when they look away from the camera. (Guys also need to stop chasing jailbait on OkCupid, but that’s a different matter.)

Messages should have non-standard salutations. You have a higher chance of getting a response if you mention things the recipient likes as opposed to commenting on their physique. Guys, be self effacing in your missives. Women, fear not, you’ve got twice the chance of getting a response messaging a guy than a guy does messaging you. And for 1337’s sake, do not SP3AK L1K3 TH1S. It’s about the most unattractive thing possible.

Some of the findings are obvious, but other results are far more unexpected. The attractiveness of single ladies in their 30s doesn’t decline as fast as everyone thinks, but oddly, the effectiveness of cleavage balloons the older a lady gets. And sometimes you don’t even need to show your face. Folks on the tubes would rather have you do something interesting than be boringly hot.

Is online dating the future for us all?

Exposing these data trends is a start — taking the pseudo out of the science of online dating. But I want to take a step back and look at the bigger picture with Sam.

“Is the future of dating online?” I ask.

Say I’m 25. I’m just out of college. I’m in a new city. My physical dating pool is essentially the people at work, the people at my local bar, and maybe my alumni network. There are tops maybe 100 people in my age range that I have a decent chance of being compatible with. Now instead, I log onto OkCupid, and immediately find thousands of people who fit my bill within 30 minutes of where I am. Why should I rely on chance to find that special someone when I can essentially Google my perfect match?”

“I think sole reliance on serendipity is more or else in the past,” Sam responds. “Dating shouldn’t be too different from any other aspect of your life where the web has become a factor. You would never say I only shop at Amazon.com and refuse to walk into Shaws, or I only use e-mail and refuse to send a card. People are using digital when it makes sense and using offline when it makes sense. [In addition to offline dating,] they are just going to have their OkCupid presence. You could be at a bar and be on OkCupid at the same time.”

That last little bit is pretty doublethink, but maybe it makes sense. Cover your bases. Cast a wider net, as they say. Art Garfunkel, I mean Malcolm Gladwell, always bangs on about the capitalization of talent — or how well we use the potential talent pool. Perhaps online dating is simply a better way of finding your fish, just in a bigger sea.

What hasn’t been entirely obvious, besides the numbers advantage, is how people portray themselves online. How authentic is the courting process? Do we turn into trolling /b/astards as soon as we log on? Are we more interested in spontaneous Chatroulette flashing than forging meaningful connections?

Sam doesn’t think so. “I love seeing trends where the online answer is parallel to what you think the offline answer is,” he says. “We constantly are trying to mirror the offline dating environment. It’s intended to simulate conversation with a friend who’s going to set you up on a date. The interpersonal dynamic of dating is something humans have honed over millennia. Just by changing the media from in person to online, I don’t think will change that fundamental underlying dynamic.”

You can use your asinine online alter-ego, but by the time you start interacting with others, the real you (however scary that might be) will emerge. And just how scary is the real us? I’m flooded by visions of bad MySpace profiles and kissy faces, e.g. Snooki et al., 2009, Jersey Shore.

The MySpacification of courtship

Are my fears confirmed? Unfortunately, some of the trends that the team uncovered support this downright scary view of a young, superficial dating scene.

For instance, that MySpace kissy face? Yeah, that actually works for ladies, even controlled for excess cleavage caused by the camera angle. For dudes à la The Situation, if you’ve got the abs, show em. Don’t even bother with including the head. You could be Patrick Swayze or Joey Butt-ugly-son, it honestly doesn’t matter if you’re packing six. “Headless horsemen,” they jokingly call them on the blog.

Again Sam reassures me that it’s not all doom and gloom.

“I think the proof there are redeeming qualities is that the average OkCupid user answers 233 match questions. If OkCupid users were really that superficial, they’d say ‘to hell with these questions.’ They wouldn’t waste time answering questions like whether I think love or wealth is a better pursuit in life.”

“Our users invest a lot of time in the non-aesthetic match system which I think is designed to get you your best personality match. Physical attraction is part of who were are as humans, but I think on OkCupid it’s much less a driving factor of your experience than on say Match.com”

So we are talking to each other. We are actually looking deeper than cleavage shots and abdominal crenelations. Hope for humanity? Fingers crossed. After publishing some of the do’s and don’ts of online dating, Sam has begun to see an improvement online.

“We definitely have seen that people have started to approach things often the way we suggested,” Sam says. “I dont think there is such thing as a perfect profile. Each person is going to have a different perfect profile. We’ve had almost a million people read our blog post on photos. A lot of people are saying I disagree. It’s never going to be the case that everyone is the same, because people are looking for different kinds of relationships. If people start putting up better pictures, I think that’s great. All that’s going to do is make each person’s pictures more effective, it doesn’t increase homogeneity.”

Signing off

So this is what it’s like in the online romantic arena.

I see a picture of the user DreamingHelen. In one picture, she’s flirting with the camera. In another she appears to be measuring a dead shark. Eye contact and interesting subject matter. Check and check. Her profile weighs in at several hundred words and is replete with details. Check plus. “I’m a nomad, which is a polite term for a bum” she says of herself. “I wander around unemployed with a backpack and a banjo.” It’s the kind of profile that invites a second look, maybe a message, maybe a future meeting.

Will she find that on OkCupid? At the end of the day, it boils down to that one question. Does it work? Do people message, meet up, fall in love, and get married thanks to OkCupid? I ask Sam.

Is there really love on the Intertubes?

He laughs. “The intertubes seem to be working. It’s really really hard for us to calculate with any confidence how many marriages/relationships happen. We do know that you terminate your OkCupid activity a few months into a relationship, and it may be years before it’s formalized in any way.”

But he adds, “Every day about 500 people cancel their account and state as their reason that they found a relationship on OkCupid.”

Love, 500 canceled accounts a day. The folks at OkCupid are more than happy to see them go.