Data Stories: Christian Rudder of OKCupid

When it comes to data blogs, the crowd favorite is definitely OkTrends, the blog from OkCupid about data on dating, relationships and sex. At least once a month, someone brings up OkTrends or OkCupid data, so I knew I wanted to interview Christian Rudder, one of the co-founders of OkCupid and the brains behind OkTrends. When I mentioned that I was interviewing Christian to Gnip staff, we started exchanging our favorite posts such as “Don’t Be Ugly By Accident.” Christian is also writing an upcoming book called “Dataclysm” this fall, which is sure to be the funniest book ever about data.

1. You changed the world of online dating by using math to determine compatibility. How else would you like to change the world by using math?

Well, for one thing, I had three other co-founders at OkCupid, so I didn’t change anything by myself. And no matter what anyone tells you there’s a lot of luck in creating a successful startup. So I would never pretend that we could effortlessly extrapolate our success. But, that said, even more than “data” and “math,” I think OkCupid’s strength is the openness of its platform. If you’re looking for your soulmate, it works. If you’re looking to find a steady relationship, it works. If you’re looking to hook up tonight and never see the other person again, it works. Other industries could surely use a dose of that flexibility. As far as what’s interesting to me and the other founders, education, peer-to-peer lending, and self-driving cars are the current list-toppers.

2. When you were writing OkTrends, how did you sift through all the interesting questions to prioritize the ones that will be the most interesting to their reader-ship?

Well, I always ask myself, what’s important everywhere, not just on OkCupid, and how can I find a way to write about it? Sex, race, politics, dating–the topics I’ve investigated on OkTrends–these are things that define the human experience. And, luckily, OkCupid has the data to explore them. Early on, I made a decision to write the blog for people who’d never heard of us or didn’t want to try online dating, so I had to ask questions of our data that everyone would care about. I think most company blogs fail because they fail to think beyond themselves–they write too much about their particular company or their particular product, and, frankly, people just don’t give a shit about your startup and how great you think it is.

3. If you were to make sweeping hypotheses based on no algorithms and just gut, what do you think social data can tell you about people’s dating habits?

Sweeping hypotheses, with no data? Happy to oblige. Social data will tell you that people are picky, vain, judgmental, lonely, rude, selfish, fucking super crazy, and then, at the end of it, when you really get to know them, actually pretty okay and just like me and you. Because that’s how it is, online or off.

4. If you had access to the full firehoses of Twitter, Tumblr and WordPress like we do at Gnip, what questions would you try to answer with social data?

Obviously, it would be amazing to have access to that kind of data. But as I said before, my research is driven by the human condition rather than the data I have on hand–so I would want to look at sex, dating, race, politics, money, work, and whatever else, though the lenses gnip provides. How do people project their political beliefs on Twitter? How does your identity change on Tumblr as you get more followers–does being popular ruin people? Change them at all? What shape do follower networks take? How does anonymity affect the content of comments on Disqus? How does a porn star’s Twitter feed differ from a politicians?

5. You’re working on a new book, Dataclysm. Can you give our readers a sneak preview into what the book is about?

I pretty much just did. I’ve been lucky enough to have had many companies give me privileged access to their data, and Dataclysm is me analyzing it much as I’ve done with OkCupid’s. It’s gonna be great–comes out Sep 2014.

Save the date for Dataclysm! Thanks to much to Christian for taking the time to do an interview with Gnip. 

If you’re looking for more Data Stories, here are some of our favorites.

  1. Hilary Mason of bitly on how data science adds value
  2. Blake Shaw of Foursquare on how Foursquare is a microscope for cities
  3. Liv Buli of Next Big Sound on being the world’s first data music journalist
  4. Mel Hogan of CU Boulder on digital archiving
  5. Annicka Campbell of Sapient Nitro on the Digital Love Project