In the past decade, online dating has shifted from an unspoken taboo to a commonplace phenomenon—and has grown into a big business.
The industry now brings in $2.7 billion a year in the U.S., according to market-research group IBISWorld, and Pew Research Center reports that 15% of American adults report having used a dating platform to seek out partners.
OkCupid, launched in 2004, has had a front-row seat to this evolution, watching users shift from dial-up internet connections to broadband to location-based mobile apps like Tinder. However, its veteran status could also be its obstacle, as it has struggled to attract younger users. The median age of female OkCupid users was 32 years old, according to a 2016 study, while that of its rival Tinder was 26.
After being named chief executive officer of the company in May 2016, Elie Seidman set out to create a community around online dating that he says is lacking in other apps that take a more superficial approach. That strategy came in direct opposition to Tinder, a competitor to OkCupid owned by the same parent company, IAC/InterActiveCorp , and the similar app Bumble. Both work by allowing users to quickly swipe right for “yes” and left for “no” on users in a specified local radius.
Mr. Seidman, who co-founded the hotel-review website Oyster.com, worked to go deeper—revamping the design of the mobile app to include in-depth information about users and requiring them to answer questions about tightly held political beliefs. In the past year, OkCupid has programmed the app to slow down the matching process and allow users to spend more time considering potential partners. Since then, it increased the amount of time taken to consider each match by 20%.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Seidman discusses how OkCupid works to maintain relevance in an increasingly saturated market and what he’s learned about human nature while making couples for a career. Edited excerpts follow.
MR. SEIDMAN: The real question when I started was, what is the core of this brand? And the core issue that was relevant in 2016 was relevant in 2000 and will be relevant in 2020 and 2030: that is making connections based on substance and who people actually are.
The biggest challenge is the obvious one: The category had grown a lot. The landscape of what options exist became much bigger, so the challenge that I saw was how consumers and customers conceptualize the category. We had also gone from a desktop world to a mobile world.
There will always be a new new thing. OkCupid was once the new new thing, and Tinder was the new new thing for a long time. You cannot say, “The virtue of our community is novelty,” because eventually you won’t be new. It has to be clear to consumers why they should be there.
This is why we put our focus into “substance over selfies”—connecting based on shared sensibilities. Those are ideas that transcend platforms and transcend novelty.
WSJ: Could you explain the “substance over selfies” focus?
MR. SEIDMAN: If you look at what we have seen in online dating in the past four to five years, there is a huge increase in speeding up: Let’s get people to go faster, let’s get people to spend more consideration over booking a restaurant on OpenTable tonight than choosing someone to connect with on an app.
We said, we are actually going to double down on what is fundamentally true for a large part of people dating, which is, I want to meet someone based on who they are, not what they look like. One of the ways we do that is during sign-up we take you through a minimum of 15 iconic OkCupid questions. These go through religion, culture, sex and gets to what you are like.
Our questions emulate what is happening in the real world, like a conversation you would have at a bar or dinner party.
There are a lot of people who have strongly held beliefs but no overlap, and we don’t want to waste their time. We push people into not just answering these questions but creating profiles that are more than just their photos. The real issue now is, how do we make that easy and enjoyable on a mobile phone?
We recently renamed our swiping product from Quickmatch to Doubletake, because we realized the name doesn’t support the values of our community: We don’t want people to be quick, we want them to be slow. We look at it proactively through the lens of product and marketing, so when you get to OkCupid it’s clear it’s the place for you.
MR. SEIDMAN: I think we are moving away from novelty. Swiping apps went through a novelty phase, with many people trying them out because of their novelty, whether it was really right for them or not. This was great. It helped expand the entire dating-app category and changed the perception of online dating, eradicating any stigma. We’re no longer in that phase of pure novelty, and as new customers choose what dating app to use, they have a range of options, each with a different focus.
Now the question isn’t how you make a dating app, what features you have, but its values—who goes there and what do you stand for? That’s the next frontier in the industry: Why would I use one instead of the other?
WSJ: Harassment on online dating websites—and online in general—has been in the spotlight lately. What does OkCupid do to address the problem?
MR. SEIDMAN: We are doing a lot to use technology and humans to moderate negative behavior online and make it clear it isn’t acceptable. We just started having users take an OkCupid pledge that confirms you’re entering a community that values substance, and part of that means we value good behavior, kind behavior, decent behavior.
I think of us as being a great host of a dinner party, and the host of the dinner party has the job of steering the conversation toward things that would be interesting and compelling.
We have a very large and effective moderation team in the U.S. It combines artificial intelligence and machine learning to look at data points to see what’s happening. If there is something a machine can’t make a decision on, it gets kicked over to human moderators. Technology can do it faster than what people can. Somebody gets flagged for something, and a human moderator has to review that and determine what happened.
The most important idea is that you take it very seriously—how do you protect people against harassment? How do you prevent and make it very clear that if you use highly sexual language to people not interested in that, it’s a violation that can get you kicked off?
We remind you even though it’s a virtual place, they are real people and you should treat them like you would treat them in real life. If we found out you aren’t following that, we are going to boot you, and we do—we have kicked off tons of people.
The difficult subjects
WSJ: You rolled out more political questions after the election. How do you think the role of politics is changing dating?
MR. SEIDMAN: One of the critical dimensions of substance for a lot of people in 2017 is what’s happening in the culture—in the U.S., politics have been extremely important. If you go on a first date with someone, is it a certainty that politics will come up? No, but it’s likely. So we think the online experience and the app should reflect back the values of the topics in this part of the community.
WSJ: Do you worry that separating people based on beliefs will further divides in the U.S.?
MR. SEIDMAN: I think it’s beyond the scope of a dating app to reset culture. We reflect culture. We can observe what’s happening in the culture and reflect it back and make it easier to have those high-quality conversations, but we can’t change it.
WSJ: What has been the most surprising facet of online dating behavior you’ve learned about your users?
MR. SEIDMAN: OkCupid has kind of a reputation for being obsessed with our data, and we’re proud of that, it makes us close to our community, helps us keep iterating on a great product. It also helps us uncover lots of fascinating dating behavior.
Here’s an example. Dating habits do vary by city. OkCupid is based in New York, and I’m always hearing my single friends here talk about how tough it is to date. But it’s harder for the guys—in a recent deep dive we did on dater habits by city, one of the interesting things we found was that New York is the very worst U.S. city for guys messaging women, who reply to men’s messages only 10% of the time. On the other end of the spectrum, Portland is the best city for messaging, because both the guys and the girls have really high response percentages compared with the rest of the country.
WSJ: What is the biggest difference between meeting people online and meeting people in person?
MR. SEIDMAN: The thing we hear again and again is, there is an ineffable element of chemistry which you can’t tell easily online. When people say that, I think what they’re saying is, when you make a decision based entirely on how someone looks online, when you meet them and you have nothing to connect on, you missed the part that was important.
There is an element to meeting in the real world which is really important, and I don’t think a dating app has a good solution for how to replace that. We don’t even try—we say, don’t waste your time going out with people who you only know how they look. But you still have to go out into the real world. That is arguably the best part of dating.
WSJ: Some studies show the pages you like on Facebook can say more about your personality than what close friends and family members know. Where do big data and algorithms fall short when it comes to love? How much is big data and how much is nondigital things like chemistry?
MR. SEIDMAN: They’re both super important. The thing that we at OkCupid have going for us is that while we cannot replace real-world chemistry, what we can do is find a lot of people with shared sensibility. In that sense, the advent of apps has been amazing but it doesn’t replace, and it is not meant to replace, the real world.
What we do at OkCupid is to get you to people with whom you have a lot in common. Our hope and aspiration is that on a “bad” OkCupid date, you have a great conversation and enjoy the person even if there is no chemistry there.