Does OkCupid Shoot Digital Arrows?

Dating site co-founder Sam Yagan talks about cybersex, polyamory, and why other dating sites are online zoos

Over the past decade, Sam Yagan, co-founder of dating mecca OkCupid.com, has gone from running a humor site famous for the “StinkyMeat” project—in which uncooked meat spoiled on camera—to working with a different kind of meat. Since the days of The Spark, Yagan and his new company have hooked up thousands of online daters with their casual, Web 2.0 approach to matchmaking—and along the way created a favorite hangout for internet goers of alternative sexualities. I spoke with Yagan over the phone via his Times Square office, from where he was proud to announce that OkCupid, soon to go live in six foreign languages, had the leg up on other sites like Match.com and eHarmony.

I recently created an OkCupid account of my own, and I noticed the site told me to "Go off and play.” Do you think of it as a play space, almost a sort of game?

"Game" isn’t the word I’d use for OkCupid. I prefer the analogy of the bar. We’re like a bar where there’s a pool table, a dartboard, and a baseball game on. There's a lot of things to do. That’s why we do really, really well with women. We’re about 45% female and about 55% male. When I talk to our female users, they say, “The reason I’m on OkCupid and not on Match.com is”—this is how they justify it to themselves—“I’m only signing up for the quizzes.” It’s like a hot girl who wouldn’t go to a singles bar, but would go to a bar for karaoke night. A lot of other dating sites, they force you to have this moment of Zen when you look at your credit card and you say to yourself, "I am an online dater." For women there’s that anxiety like, “Do I really have to pay to get a date? We offer a free site that’s not just about dating, so women think, “Sure, I’ll give it a try.” In general, eHarmony will get people who are desperate: the guy who’s forty saying, “Oh my God, I haven’t found anyone. Help find me my soul mate!” OkCupid is going to get the hot, trendy, hipster, cool, grunge, 27-year-old, who just wants to hang out and chat with interesting people, and if something happens romantically, so be it.

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Bonnie Ruberg's blog about sex, tech, gender, and videogames

Is that the average of OkCupid users, 27?

Right around 27, 28. Think about it this way: if you’re 18 to 24, is there any way on God’s green earth you’re signing up for Match.com? No! So we totally dominate. People under thirty, they grew up with the internet. And let’s face it: everything that you do online is free these days. Facebook is a great site, and they don’t charge. So what is a lame site like Match.com doing charging?

Besides the demographic, what makes OkCupid so apparently different from sites like Match.com?

I feel like Match.com is a zoo where you’re walking around looking in cages and saying, “That is an interesting animal there.” Like I said, we try to make OkCupid more like an online bar. So you’re there, you’re hanging out. You’re taking quizzes, you’re posting on someone’s journal. You’re just socializing, but there happen to be hot guys and hot girls. That just seems so much more natural than the zoo feeling. It’s also much more empowering and irreverent than believing that there’s a Dr. Phil or some guru of romance that you have to defer to. There’s no greater power than the user in our opinion…

But, like other dating sites, OkCupid has an algorithm that tells users who they would and wouldn’t be compatible with, right?

It’s important to remember our algorithm is different from eHarmony’s, which is one size fits all. It’s like a religion; eHarmony says, “We know the way. We know the promise land. You guys have to get in line and do what we say.” The way our algorithm works, it’s customized to each person. So, if religion is really important to you, but not owning cats is really important to me because I’m allergic, in your algorithm God will get more weight than cats, but in mine cats will get more weight than God. We don’t make any judgements… It’s our job to help you bump into interesting people while you’re on OkCupid. I call it “engineered discovery.”

Do your users just discover other potential partners, or do you think they’re also discovering new sexual possibilities?

We allow people to be really expressive on OkCupid. It’s not just a matter of filling out check boxes. I think people are able to talk more openly about sex, so I think that leads to exploring more sexual possibilities. The other thing is, while we’re very much a general interest site, there are certain niches of people—like polyamourous people—who find OkCupid to be a much more open and accepting place [than other dating sites]. Someone who’s polyamorous doesn’t fit into the Match.com box, and God forbid doesn’t fit into the Eharmony box. We also have a slightly higher than average percentage of people who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, probably 13% or 14%. So the people who are marginalized on some of the subscription sites find a really welcoming venue here. And the way our algorithm works, if you’re a conservative person, you’re just not going to run into the much more liberal people. You’ll never see that other side of OkCupid.

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