Single/straight/female seeks single/straight/male: identity building on OkCupid
From the moment a user signs up to OkCupid, one of the world’s largest online dating services, he or she is asked to select a unitary and specific identity: female/male and straight/gay/bisexual. This insistence on a singular identity is not unique to OkCupid of course. Social media, online shopping sites and media providers all require the user to validate certain offline identity details, often including gender, date of birth and name. They do this with good reason: the more they know about each user, the more accurately advertising can be targeted.
While OkCupid does not ask for a real name, it does offer the ability to connect via Facebook, thus encouraging a single, verifiable user identity across multiple sites, producing incredibly valuable data for marketing and advertising purposes (Marwick 2013, p. 5).
OkCupid’s sign-up requirements also immediately establish a norm for the community which new users are about to join: there are no alternatives to female/male gender identity; there is nothing beyond the bounds of straight/gay/bisexual. Before they even have a chance to really start building their profile, they have already been neatly categorized.
Once signed up, users can begin to build their OkCupid identity further, including photos, likes and dislikes, what they are looking for in a mate and so on. These details are complemented with a number of questions designed to elicit deeper personality information. Answers to questions like “Which is more offensive: book burning or flag burning?” help to establish character and determine compatibility with other users. The more questions answered, the more accurately matches can be made. According to the 100 questions I answered for example, my personality was determined to be more adventurous, indie, political and scientific than the average user, while being less spiritual. As I answered them, I couldn’t help but wonder whether users might change their answers depending on what they think people might like. Answers are after all semi-public: once logged into OkCupid I can go to any user’s profile to view how their responses shaped up against mine.
Designing one’s identity for an online dating site must surely be a meticulously thought out process for many users, since presumably their profiles need to represent those traits which the user believes might attract the kind of mate they are looking for. “Impression management” (Baym 2010, p. 108) is not necessarily always truthful and can often be strategic, especially in an environment where first impressions count.
With so much data on its users, OkCupid provides pointers for success via its blog, OkTrends. In the article, “Exactly What To Say In A First Message” (OkTrends 2009), it recommends for men to be self-effacing, for users to consider being an atheist, and to avoid “netspeak” words such as “ur”, “ya” and “wat”. These suggestions have interesting implications on user identity. While many contributors to the post’s comments section laughed off the idea of altering their personality to suit the trend, a few indicated they would try the recommendations, while others were outraged at the suggestion that they should hide their faith or act apologetic.
One user lamented, “this whole process turns people into robots. I wish that we, as a people, could find it in ourselves to move beyond these very narrowly defined cultural roles” (user comments, OK Trends 2010), while another suggested that despite what the data might indicate, there was no such thing as a “magic formula”: “women are not the Borg. We all have different things we like” (user comments, OK Trends 2011).
Another OkTrend article examines “The Big Lies People Tell In Online Dating” (OKTrends 2010), revealing information about how users portray their height, annual income, their sexuality and of course their looks. The authors overlaid user data with national averages to glean that many of its members were probably telling fibs. While not exactly a scientific method (perhaps OkCupid’s community just happens to include some of America’s tallest men?), the article is revealing in terms of which attributes get positive responses, thus alluding to reasons why someone might stretch the truth about their height or income.
As one user commented, “I’ve created profiles that were following the popular trend… follow all the pickup artist rules of social engagement and I definitely get more responses ultimately leading to more dates. I’ve also created an experimental profile that most resembles my true personality. Unfortunately, the fake profile won by a landslide. It’s sad that my true personality was considered the experimental” (user comments, OK Trends 2011).
In the online dating scene, identity is a commodity; a product on the marketplace (Marwick 2005, p. 91). Profiles are created, selves are refined, personal brands are formed. The above points may have only scratched the surface of what is involved in identity formation on OkCupid, but certainly reveal that there is not a one-size-fits-all method, nor that creating a profile is a static process. Ideally (for OkCupid, its parent company IAC, advertisers on the site, as well as for some of its users) there would be a “magic formula”; a box to tick as seemingly straight-forward as female/male. Unfortunately identities are not straight-forward. They are ever-changing, multi-faceted, chimerical things that will not be pegged to a graph or slotted into a pie chart, no matter how hard data scientists and advertisers might try.
Baym Nancy K. 2010, Personal Connections in the Digital Age, Polity Press, Cambridge
Marwick, Alice 2005, ‘Selling Your Self: Online Identity in the Age of a Commodified Internet’, Masters thesis, University of Washington
Marwick, Alice 2013, ‘Online Identity’, in Hartley, J., Burgess, J. & Bruns, A. (eds), Companion to New Media Dynamics, Blackwell Companions to Cultural Studies, Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 355-364.
Homepage, OkCupid, viewed 20 September 2014, <http://www.okcupid.com>
Homepage, OkTrends: Dating Research from OkCupid, viewed 21 September 2014, <http://blog.okcupid.com/>