Christian T. Rudder ’97 is not a statistician by trade, but the 39-year-old founder of OkCupid just so happens to be a pioneer in a certain branch of data analytics—the data behind love and romance. Since starting his blog OkTrends in 2009, Rudder has uncovered all sorts of statistical trends: the effects of race on dating and interactions, the most successful profile pictures on dating sites, and the questions that are good predictors of whether a woman will have sex on the first date (ask her if she likes beer). Along the way, Rudder has also written for Sparknotes, played guitar for rock group Bishop Allen, and starred in the movie “Funny Ha Ha,” which The New York Times’s A.O. Scott listed in his top 10 films of 2005. FM had the opportunity to chat with Rudder, who published “Dataclysm,” a book based off his findings, in early September.
Fifteen Minutes Magazine: You’ve uncovered a lot of interesting trends for OkCupid. Which trend do you personally find the most interesting?
Christian T. Rudder: Which do I find the most interesting? It’s hard to say for OkCupid, since it’s all so old hat to me at this point. The things I’m finding most interesting are the things people at Facebook are figuring out, just because they’re working with different data. These guys in the UK have been able to use people’s Facebook ‘likes’ to predict all this crazy stuff: your race with 95 percent accuracy, whether you’re a man or woman, all the way down to whether your parents got divorced before you were 21 with 60 percent accuracy. It’s a pretty amazing degree of accuracy.
FM: So do you think humans are becoming predictable?
CTR: Yes, in a narrow sense, in terms of how they’re going to want to use an interface. That’s hard to argue with.
FM: The things you write about provide interesting narratives, but are there any broader applications of your findings?
CTR: All the findings are different, so it depends. But as far as sociology issues, in general, the answer is probably yes. Race, for example, is a pretty taboo topic, and interracial relations in this country are problematic, so the extent to which you can get real numbers behind something is a good way to move the discussion and conversation forward.
FM: Have you come across any negative responses for trying to cover these taboo topics?
CTR: People have generally been pretty positive. There are some people who are like, “what is this good for?” But I think that’s a question that too many CS majors have also asked too many English majors about what they’re doing. The “what is it good for” type of question isn’t really—I don’t think there can be a demonstrated use in advance of a finding.
FM: In the book, you write, “If Big Data’s two running stories have been surveillance and money, for the last three years I’ve been working on a third: the human story.” Can you elaborate on that?
CTR: I started the book when Facebook was having its IPO and there was a lot of ink spilled on how much money they were all going to make, so I just started thinking to myself there are much bigger stories here than the economic one. Whether it’s marketers or the government kind of watching us, the public isn’t that excited about either of these stories. It’s not something people really get behind. So I just wanted to tell something of a little more practical interest to people, writing about sex, race, and attraction and all that stuff.
FM: Hal Varian, the chief economist at Google, called being a statistician today’s new “sexy” job, in the same way computer science has been a top skill in this past decade. Do you agree?
CTR: I was not a stats major, and I think a lot of the hardcore stats elements of this job are way overblown. I see a lot of problems where people apply really inappropriate tools to relatively simple questions just because they can. So I don’t know. I think it takes as much knowledge about human nature as it does about arching statistical methods. But I’m sure he’s right—he sounds like he knows better than I do.
FM: At Harvard, you were initially an English concentrator but switched to Math. How much of what you learned here do you use in your current work?
CTR: Oh God, almost none. I’m trying to think. I was definitely not one of the Math 55 guys. The stuff I studied was more like algebra, and that’s just not so useful here. I guess I use a little bit of combinatorics. “M choose N” type situations come up in real life.
FM: Did you do any data analytics projects at Harvard?
CTR: No. All I did was my problem sets. I wasn’t really into data at all. I guess I made this little program for stockbrokers that took their financial statements and made little graphs and stuff out of it. So that’s sort of data, but nothing like what I do now.
FM: Aren’t a lot of your current coworkers also Harvard grads?
CTR: I had one class with one of the other founders of OkCupid. All of my co-founders did go to Harvard, but I only got to know them afterwards. That being said, I might not have gotten to know them at all if we had not gone to school together. That relationship definitely made the degree work out, regardless of whether or not I use group theory in real life.
FM: You’ve been in rock groups and starred in your Harvard roommate Andrew J. Bujalski’s film “Funny Ha Ha,” which is widely considered to be the first mumblecore film. Do you see a common thread in your career choices?
CTR: No, although since you pointed it out, I guess all the things I do tend to be with other Harvard grads. All those relationships—in my band and movie and OkCupid—are from school. So I guess that’s the common thread.