How a Math Genius Hacked OkCupid to Find True Love

How a Math Genius Hacked OkCupid to Find True Love

Chris McKinlay was folded into a cramped fifth-floor cubicle in UCLA’s math sciences building, lit by a single bulb and the glow from his monitor. It was 3 in the morn­ing, the optimal time to squeeze cycles out of the supercomputer in Colorado that he was using for his PhD dissertation. (The subject: large-scale data processing and parallel numerical methods.) While the computer chugged, he clicked open a second window to check his OkCupid inbox.

McKinlay, a lanky 35-year-old with tousled hair, was one of about 40 million Americans looking for romance through websites like Match, J-Date, and e-Harmony, and he’d been searching in vain since his last breakup nine months earlier. He’d sent dozens of cutesy introductory messages to women touted as potential matches by OkCupid’s algorithms. Most were ignored; he’d gone on a total of six first dates.

OkCupid was founded by Harvard math majors in 2004, and it first caught daters’ attention because of its computational approach to matchmaking. Members answer droves of multiple-choice survey questions on everything from politics, religion, and family to love, sex, and smartphones.

On average, respondents select 350 questions from a pool of thousands-“Which of the following is most likely to draw you to a movie?” or “How important is religion/God in your life?” For each, the user records an answer, specifies which responses they’d find acceptable in a mate, and rates how important the question is to them on a five-point scale from “irrelevant” to “mandatory.” OkCupid’s matching engine uses that data to calculate a couple’s compatibility. The closer to 100 percent-mathematical soul mate-the better.

But mathematically, McKinlay’s compatibility with women in Los Angeles was abysmal. OkCupid’s algorithms use only the questions that both potential matches decide to answer, and the match questions McKinlay had chosen-more or less at random-had proven unpopular. When he scrolled through his matches, fewer than 100 women would appear above the 90 percent compatibility mark.