Sam Yagan is co-founder and CEO of OkCupid.com, the fastest-growing free online dating service. Yagan was previously co-founder and CEO of TheSpark.com, maker of SparkNotes, and president of MetaMachine, which developed P2P file-sharing application eDonkey. He has also been vice president and general manager at Delias, and vice-president and publisher at Barnes & Noble.
Question: What have you learned about human behavior by looking at online dating patterns?
Sam Yagan: There are a ton of interesting things that we’ve learned. One thing that we learned that we published on our blog post is that uniformly, men lie about their height by almost exactly two inches. So if you look at a plot of census bureau data on the distribution of men’s heights in the U.S. and you plot men’s heights on OKCupid, it is exactly shifted two inches to the left. And so it’s just interesting to see how uniformly men lie about their height when given a chance to. Until they get to about six feet. And then they don’t lie quite so much. But if you’re under six feet, you’re going to add about two inches to your height. That’s one example.
We talked about some of the race... some of the interactions based on race. We also looked at what words people use in their profiles. And we categorized those by race and gender. And we said, what words are the biggest outliers in each race/gender pair. And so for white men, the word they use most disproportionately is the phrase, "Tom Clancy." For white women, it’s "The Boston Red Sox," if you look at Hispanic male profiles, they reference violent sports like mixed martial arts, but at the same time reference humor more than any other race and gender pair. If you look at black women, they reference spirituality. They have over 10 of the 25 most common words in a black woman’s profile involve God, Jesus or religion.
So if you just look at what I call these ethnic autobiographies, you can see what is important to each ethnic group in their own words, and that’s been pretty powerful.
There is this longstanding belief among some portion of the population that gay people try to convert straight people to being homosexual. So we just did an analysis and we tried to find out what percentage of people, what percentage of gay men search for straight men. And it turns out that it’s well under 1% of men, of gay men, search for straight men.
So by simply putting that data out there, we can influence people’s perceptions and hopefully they’ll believe, that people who hold that belief that it’s the mission of homosexuals to on mass go and convert people, maybe this will be just one more argument against that position and they will be a little bit more open-minded and say, oh it turns out that when you actually observe people’s behavior, that’s not what they are trying to do.
Question: What role does age play in determining how a user approaches the site?
Sam Yagan: OkCupid has users from 18 to 80 on the site. And we get to observe all of their actions. We get to watch how they use the site, how they interact with other people. And what we’ve found is there’s a tremendous difference across the ages, in particular those who grew up with the Web versus those who didn’t.
People who are older have very different usage patterns on the site. They are less likely to use it to kind of hang out on the site. Less likely to interact with people that aren’t explicitly in dating context. Younger people will, again, have that bar-like experience. So they’re come, they’ll message people, they might even message people that are the same gender as them even if they’re heterosexual. The might message someone who is really far away just to strike up a conversation.
We’ve also done a bunch of research on... one topic we’ve done a lot of research on is race and ethnicity and what is the impact on race and ethnicity on dating. And we have found some tremendous differences according to age. In particular, we looked at for each age bucket, do people that age tend to send messages to only to people of one race or to people of multiple races? And what we found is that as you age, the more likely you are to just send messages of your ethnicity.
So if you are in your 50s and 60s and you’re white, you’re almost only sending to other white people. If you’re in your 50s and your 60s and you’re hispanic, you’re almost only sending messages to other Hispanics. If you look at people in their 20s and early 30s, it’s the exact opposite. It the minority of people who are sending messages just to their own race. And in fact, most people, if you’re white, you’re sending messages to whites and blacks. If you’re black, you’re sending messages to hispanics and Asians. And you’re seeing a much broader context and a much broader approach to dating as you get younger.
So I think, I think in general, the usage habits are reflective of people’s idiosyncrasies and people’s stereotypes. I think it’s no surprise that the younger people are more progressive, more open-minded, more... sort of more color blind, if you will. And people who are older are more set in their ways. They grew up in the '60s and '70s and are you know, still remember some of the, whether it’s Jim Crow or other sort of racial issues that we’ve had in this country.
So when it comes to actual usage of the site, yeah, it’s definitely the case that the older you get the more focused you are on marriage and in most cases. And the younger you are, you just want to meet people. And so that may also impact how people use the site.
Recorded on November 4, 2010
Interviewed by Teddy Sherrill
Directed & Produced by Jonathan Fowler