At a quiet table in a dimly lit Lower East Side Italian restaurant, Lauren Urasek, a poised 23-year-old makeup artist with a Cleopatra haircut and cherry-red lipstick, is lit by the glow of her iPhone as she flips through online-dating messages.
Thunderstruck! You’re like the girl I would make a profile of if I was making my ideal match. I think I literally said out loud, “Yes, you.”
“That’s kind of normal,” she says, sipping a bourbon on the rocks.
“It’s mostly always about tattoos.”
ur hot. not usually into girls with tats but ur sexy we should chill i got a huge cock …
Hey, what’s up?
“I get so many of those …”
I would swim the Amazon upstream with an airtank filled with Rosie O’Donnell’s queefs …
“Uh, random ...”
I’d so eat you out from behind! :)
“Annnnd … he’s from South Dakota,” Lauren says, turning off her phone, which will ping with a dozen new queries before the waiter brings the check. “Seventy percent of the messages are straight-up blunt, vulgar shit. Even if I would just have fun with you … you need to not approach it that way.”
On the free online-dating site OKCupid, Lauren is known as nebulaeandstuff: 23. Five-foot-five. Single. Curvy. Atheist. She likes “hockey, whiskey, swimming in an open ocean, down comforters, astronomy.” Her photos are striking: a wide-eyed close-up, overlit like an album cover; a low-res camera-phone shot that flaunts a short skirt and the gypsy tattoo that curls around her thigh. “I don’t get intimidated easily,” her profile warns.
Lauren receives around three dozen emails a day; in the last seven months, she’s received five-star ratings, the highest possible rating, from nearly 8,000 men.
I found her after a conversation with OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder, who famously crunched the site’s user data on the blog OKTrends and sold a book based on it, Dataclysm, for seven figures. In New York, online dating is practically a municipal utility, connecting millions of strangers. To find out how some people manage to stand apart from the masses, and how it feels to be so desired, I asked Rudder to introduce me to the most popular OKCupid daters in the city in four categories—straight and gay women and straight and gay men.
Rudder analyzed the data from a one-week period in January and used a simple methodology: finding the users who receive the most messages from potential suitors. The four people selected wouldn’t necessarily claim to be the wealthiest, most stunning or successful singles, but, out of 400,000 annual citywide users on the site, they were among the top five in their respective categories and, perhaps less scientifically, were the four who were also willing to be interviewed for a story.
Lauren received 245 messages in that one-week period. While she was surprised to find that she is the most sought-after straight woman, she doesn’t think guys are complicated. “I’m not a stuck-up girl, but I think looks are No. 1 for everyone,” she says. As a makeup artist, Lauren spends her days at photo shoots and knows what makes a good picture. “I believe in a head-to-toe shot to show what you look like,” she says. “But you don’t need to have your ass hanging out!”
She thinks it helps that her profile reflects her idiosyncratic interest in astronomy: She has a moon and a planet tattooed on her knuckles; she quotes a physicist and links out to NASA.gov. “Even if an amazingly attractive girl said something stupid in their profile, she’ll still get messages,” she says. “So I feel like I’m intelligent and people think I look good, so I guess it’s as simple as that?”
It doesn’t hurt that Lauren, after getting out of a four-year relationship with a “pathological liar” who had a drug problem, isn’t necessarily looking for anything serious. So, in OKCupid’s searchable “I’m looking for …” section, she, like most women, selected “long-term dating,” “short-term dating,” and “new friends.” Unlike most women, she also selected “casual sex,” figuring she might as well tell the truth.
“At first, I thought if you listed ‘casual sex,’ guys would realize that even though I don’t want to be in a relationship with you, we can still go out, get drinks,” she says, but it triggered a vulgar explosion of come-ons. “It’s like, I’m not a prostitute. But they don’t get that.”
The attention, she admits, has been flattering—an ego boost after a rough breakup. She also confesses that she was “never the pretty girl” growing up and appreciates being in the position to approve or ignore other people. But the onslaught of crass emails has been so exhausting that she began collecting the worst messages at her Tumblr, theyreallysaidthis. She guesses that about 20 percent of respondents have been older than 40, including married men asking her to be a mistress. (“That brings my hope down: Oh, so, I’m gonna marry someone and they’re gonna wanna have sex with some 23-year-old?”) Occasionally, men offer cash for sex, like the 44-year-old who wrote, “I would pay to fuck you—let that be part of the fun.”
The attention got so irritating—so many online stalkers, so many dick pics—that she deleted her user name. (This is why OKCupid actually throttles traffic to popular accounts. “We try hard to keep people from getting too many messages,” says Rudder. “Sometimes there’s no stemming the tide.”) Her new account, loandthecosmos, looks similar, but “casual sex” isn’t selected. “The quality is better,” she says, though she admits that the experience of sifting through such a high percentage of creeps has made her more pessimistic; she finds it harder to tell the difference between “someone who’s genuine and someone who’s not; tons of my friends feel the same way.”
She even worries that she’s wasting her time, like she’s racking up high scores on CandyCrush rather than really connecting. In the two years Lauren has been on the site, she estimates that she’s gone on only 20 dates. “I’m picky. I just look at the first sentence and delete delete delete.”
At a dark, candlelit West Village bar, James Hawver, a 29-year-old real-estate agent and New York’s most popular straight guy, is the living embodiment of his OKCupid handle, MyTiesAreSkinny. Preppily handsome, he’s dressed in a well-fitting H&M blazer with, yes, a skinny black tie and matching pocket square. James’s profile is peppered with references to his travels in Nepal and China and self-deprecatingly confident jokes like: “Ryan Gosling could play my stunt double. That is, if I didn’t already do my own stunts.” The whole profile is self-aware, right down to his height, which he lists as five-foot-nine, though he’s an inch shorter. “They say most guys add two inches,” he says, quoting OKCupid’s statistics blog, OKTrends. “I’m already behind!”
Rounding is common in online dating. Few highlight their worst characteristics, and everyone shows their best angle—or, at least, tries. But James has a few simple hacks to further improve his odds. He uses both OKCupid and Tinder, an app that is almost solely photo-based. Both are owned by IAC, the company that also owns Match.com. In the three and a half hours we spend talking, the phone will ping 47 times: On Tinder, 35 women will match with him; 12 women on OKCupid will either message or favorite him. The week before, he took a screenshot of a Tinder notification: 890 new matches, a personal record. And he has a basic strategy. Like a lot of guys, he was wasting time studying the profiles and photos of women who would never respond. Then a friend shared a deviously simple online-dating trick.
“You ready for the secret?” James asks me. “Not to blow your mind, but it’s disgusting …” He picks up his phone. “So, every couple days, I will do this,” he says. He opens the Tinder app, but before
I can see the first woman’s face, he swipes right: interested. If the woman he likes also swipes right, he has an official match. In short: He never swipes left (not interested).
“I will say yes to every single person,” James says. And he never follows up with someone who hasn’t already confirmed her interest. On OKCupid, he does the same thing: He gives everyone five stars (and if someone gives him four or fives stars in return, the site will notify him of a match). By doing so, he exposes himself to less risk, an appealing upside to James, who’s had two difficult breakups. He’s since had thousands of matches—so many that he’s had to refine his strategy.
When he messages women on OKCupid, it’s time-consuming: He reads the profile and tailors each email with personal details. On Tinder, he basically tweaks the same message. “The last person I matched with was Allison,” he says. If he were to send a message to Allison on a Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday, it would read: Hey there Miss Allison. What kind of trouble did you get into this weekend? :) “That’s exactly what I do, every fucking time,” he says, laughing. For Wednesday: Hey there Miss Allison. What sort of trouble are you getting into this week? :) Thursday or Friday: What kind of trouble are you getting into this weekend? :) And if it’s Saturday: What kind of trouble have you been getting into? :)
Depending on how the Tinder chat evolves, he tries to move the conversation to text and then to a real date. “There’s a tyranny of choice,” he says. “I feel kind of gross saying that out loud, because I don’t want to objectify people. But you just kind of have to.”
The other night at a party with friends, James was describing how much fun he’s been having when a 43-year-old woman overheard him and gave him a hard time. “She said to me, ‘You guys, you always have another option! When does it end? When does it end?’ ”
It’s easy to see how the attention could become addictive, so I ask James: When does it end?
“I don’t know,” he says. He describes himself as “romantic,” but, like a lot of people who log on and see thousands of singles within a mile of their Zip Code, he’s not really stressed about the end. “A lot of us want the best: the best job, the best apartment, the best significant other,” he says. And in his case, that might mean being the best bachelor as well—someone with the best stories of dating adventures to tell. In fact, he can’t stop thinking about this one incredible woman he met recently; they danced until two in the morning. Then he tells me about another beautiful, smart woman who fed him meat loaf at three in the morning. And then there was that woman with …
“God, I wouldn’t even know how to hack my profile,” says Kerry Campbell, a 26-year-old fashion designer and street artist from Long Island. It’s easy to believe her. Though her profile, riot_rhythms, is OKCupid’s most popular gay-woman’s profile, it breaks several unspoken rules: Bathroom selfies are considered cliché, but her page features three such shots snapped with an unflattering tile background. She’s a fit cyclist, but there’s no full-length body shot to show off her figure. She describes sarcasm as her “second language,” but her profile is utterly sincere. “I’m into interesting people who are down to earth and who share the same values as me: family-friends-art-fitness,” she writes.
For gay women on OKCupid, the dating scene is smaller—only 4 percent of users—and therefore less competitive; people have a bit more time to linger. And there’s a good reason why Kerry wants her profile to be a “true reflection” of herself: Three years ago, she came out on the site. “I dated so many guys, thinking I could find the right one, but something wasn’t fitting,” she says, over several glasses of wine. She’s wearing Supra high-tops, harem pants, and a white T-shirt, accessorized with a gold cross that used to belong to her grandmother. She created a profile and selected “gay girls only” from OKCupid’s menu two years before she came out to her Catholic family in Long Island, with whom she currently lives—and mentions lovingly in her profile.
“Some people say, ‘I don’t believe in labels,’ ” she says. “For me, making the profile and saying ‘I’m gay and I want to meet women’ was a little scary, but it’s who I am.”
Plus flirting online is less intimidating. Quietly confident but admittedly shy, Kerry says she could never be the popular girl on the club scene; she avoids girls nights. She prefers dinner—and, besides, she has a long commute home to Long Island. But Kerry gets plenty of emails from “really nice girls,” most of whom compliment her short haircut, which she truly believes is the root of her popularity (in her profile, she compares herself to Harry Styles). She also gets a lot of emails about her love of Orange Is the New Black.
She gets an extra boost of incoming messages from straight guys who want to convert her and straight girls who want to try something different. “I’m not interested in being an experiment,” she says. And, in a sea of casual daters, her family-oriented sincerity is part of her appeal. As such, Kerry doesn’t like the idea of gaming her profile to attract more women. She’s only gone on about ten dates in three years, and she’s generally too shy to message anyone.
“But if I didn’t make an OKC profile, I may never have met the girl I’m currently dating,” Kerry says, pointing to the bar stool near our table, where she and her date talked for three hours until the restaurant closed and kicked them out. “She found me—it’s not even like I was looking for her.”
On OKCupid, vibes4dayz is 24 and five-foot-six: a self-described “chesty nugget with a great head of hair” who splurges on “concert tickets, nice shoes, and dinners where i let the waiter order for me.”
At a vodka bar, Thomas McKee, the site’s most sought-after gay man, lives up to his billing—well, nearly. “I’m five-five and a half,” he admits. At first, he didn’t list his height at all, but then a date seemed disappointed. “I realized I have to kind of own the fact that I’m a short guy,” he says. “It’s just part of the package.”
At first, Tom says, online dating “was almost like another social-media channel: You check your Facebook, you check your Twitter, you check OKCupid. It felt a little pointless for a gay guy.” Then he got a new job and broke up with a boyfriend. “I was like, If I can go after what I want and get it in other parts of my life, why can’t I do that in dating?”
As a gay kid who was bullied in Staten Island, Tom was always aware of how his image affected his life; like the other most-popular daters, he grew up with a social-media presence that was a half-notch more perfect, filtered, and aspirationally curated than his real life, believing that if you “fake it till you make it,” as he says, he could will the just-a-bit-more-desirable person of his profiles into existence. And he could achieve that in part by applying the skills he’d picked up as an integrated-marketing manager. “I work with brands,” he says, “and an online profile is, like, your personal brand.”
His profile is breezy and clear, peppered with jokes, light references to his Staten Island family, glancing mentions of his professional ambition, and pop references (“beyonce illuminati youtube fan videos”). “I’m going to a website, literally, when I visit your profile, and, odds are, your website is boring,” he says. “There’s nothing more off-putting than just a block of text. We live in a 140-character world. Easy to digest is what we’re going for.”
Tom also decided to take advantage of OKCupid’s profile-optimizing services. He accepted a free “promote me” trial that pushed his profile higher in search results and uploaded his pictures to OKCupid’s MyBestFace, essentially a free focus-group service that helps singles choose their most popular photos. “Companies charge hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct studies like this,” Tom says. The results surprised him. Everyone hated his profile photo, a group shot of Tom and his friends at a bar, in favor of a filtered iPhone shot of Tom grinning goofily beside towering model Tyra Banks. “I don’t think it’s a good photo of me at all,” he says. “But it just started driving clicks to my page. I mean, gay guys love Tyra Banks.”
Despite the steady stream of emails from interested men, he still wasn’t satisfied with his page. “There’s, like, a narcissistic thing about a dating profile,” he says. “Just like your Facebook profile, I consider my profile an extension of myself. And it’s a culture of likes:
I want it to look good and clean so, like, I make it do crunches and shit.” But there was one little detail that felt off-brand: Every profile has a SEND A MESSAGE button that’s coded red (“replies very selectively”),yellow (“replies selectively”), or green (“replies often”). Tom’s button was an embarrassing green.
“I felt I needed to come across as more exclusive,” he says. “When you’re a high-end brand, you’re not going after everybody. You’re going after select people, and when they don’t perceive you as being exclusive, you lose.”
The selectivity rating is based on the percentage of messages the user responds to. Tom—who fully realizes how ridiculous this sounds—figured he could wait for lots of guys to email and then not respond in order to lower his stats, but that would take a while. Typically, Tom rated only a small number of guys highly, but, in order to appear more exclusive, he realized he had to be less selective. So, like some ever-smiling search-engine optimizer, he gave every guy five stars. “I was rating people highly at a mass volume, so as to get a message saying, ‘This person likes you back!’ and then not reply to it, with the overall goal of coming across as selective.
“I say: Don’t be too eager,” Tom tells me. “Don’t be green. Be red.”
His green dot is now red.
*This article appeared in the February 24, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.