Data Mining For Dates: How Chris McKinlay Became The Most Popular Man on OkCupid

It was his mind – not his heart – that drove Chris McKinlay to OkCupid in the summer of 2012.

Like 124.6 million Americans, the 35-year-old mathematician, was single. So while pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics at UCLA and finishing his thesis in topic-mining algorithms, McKinlay – with access to one of the top 20 most powerful super computers in the world – hatched an idea.

He decided to reverse engineer the match algorithm for OkCupid, the world’s largest free dating website with 14 million monthly active users. OkCupid’s matching system – expressed in percentages, or the likelihood two members will be inclined to “match up” – is dependent on individual answers to any number of roughly half a million user-generated multiple-choice questions on everything from religion, diet, lifestyle, and politics.

How do you feel about tattoos; what is more offensive: book burning, or flag burning; how often do you mediate? To name a few of the thought-provoking and life inquests.

McKinlay was chiefly interested in how members answered these questions. Do they tend to answer uniformly? Do their answers percolate throughout the space, similar if they answered by flipping a coin? Or, do they clump around commonly held belief systems, and if so, by how much?

Rolling up his sleeves, McKinlay determined that OkCupid members in the LA area at the time clustered into seven different groups, or user segments.McKinlay’s reverse engineering methodology consisted of spitting back the right questions, answering them, and then applying those answers back to his profile.

Suddenly, he was the number-one match for more than 30,000 women – receiving approximately 88 unsolicited messages a week. (By comparison, a straight male on OkCupid, the median number of unsolicited messages is zero.)

Going on an average of one date a day, McKinlay vowed to keep the project alive until either one of two things happened: OkCupid shut him down or he met someone worth ending the project for.

“It was Amazon Prime for my dating life,” said McKinlay.

His reverse engineering algorithm immediately impacted his conversion rate from first-match to date. Increasing weekly, McKinlay’s conversion rate ultimately reached 82 percent in six weeks.

Today, McKinlay is engaged to Christine, a woman he met during his mathematical, and algorithmic, journey.

According to McKinlay, his engagement isn’t a result of the fact he hacked OkCupid (while, technically, it is!) but a direct result of working hard at his relationship.

That said, he’s fairly certain he conducted a thorough search.

You can also listen to the full story on The Moth, here.