The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
It’s Valentine’s Day, so it’s fitting that I finally visited the dating website that my favorite podcaster, Rob Long, had talked about in a recent episode. Turns out the clever nerds who run OK Cupid, a booming singles site, have stumbled on a surprising statistical truth about which members get the most attention...a truth that helps explain something I’ve noticed in our own surveys of cultural audiences for years.
Now, bear with me. It’s a big leap from dating-website data to how and why people connect to an orchestra or a natural history museum. But as Rob notes in his characteristically wry take on the data, the ins and outs of attraction are a pretty good metaphor for all kinds of human preference-related behaviors, especially in leisure-time, feel-good categories like music, art, and entertainment. “Everything, when you get down to it, is kinda like dating.”
And this post traffics in the objectification of women, a dubious first for me. The OK Cupid crew have analyzed stats from their site about which female members are considered hot and which get the most messages from other members. They promise to do the same for (to?) men soon. Meanwhile, if you’re particularly sensitive to “lookism,” skip down to the bottom and post a disgruntled comment.
So what’s the big reveal? That the women on the site who get the most attention (in the form of messages from other members) aren’t the ones with the highest average attractiveness ratings. They’re the ones with the most disparate ratings — the ones about whom opinion is divided. Lots of 1s and 5s in your ratings is better than lots of 4s. As OK Cupid co-founder Christian Rudder puts it in his post about the analysis, “Guys tend to ignore girls who are merely cute” (that is, fairly but not outrageously attractive), “and, in fact, having some men think she’s ugly actually works in a woman’s favor.”
The whole post is fascinating, and the statistical analysis looks strong, especially for that counterintuitive last bit about how the lowest attractiveness ratings actually contribute more to the attention the member receives than the second-highest ratings. (And for the record, we’re not talking about negative attention. We’re talking about the correlation between the distribution of attractiveness scores and the number of approaches that men make to female members, presumably with a relationship on their minds.) ...
Except that, as someone who spends a fair amount of time looking at graphs of how people feel about, and behave toward, cultural and educational organizations, I don’t find this counterintuitive at all. For years I’ve been sensing a disconnect between the largely positive ratings that audiences give our clients and the lukewarmness of their relationships with many of those organizations.
The OK Cupid data points to a possible explanation: that the organizations are perceived as “merely cute” — pretty attractive to pretty much everyone in their audiences, with little dissent. And, let’s face it, not much to dissent about. The satisfaction curves of our clients show either broad, general enthusiasm (like this one for a ballet company’s website)...
...or slightly more bell-shaped responses when we ask them how the organization in question stacks up to others of its type (like this one for a natural history museum).
What we never see are the barbell-shaped curves that OK Cupid says are associated with greater interest and energy. Why not? Maybe because the organizations do exactly what most dating site members try to do: play down their flaws, try to appeal to as many people as possible, even if that means becoming a little generic. I’ve often said that most cultural organizations are afraid of making mistakes or showing their weaknesses; they hide any flaws or oddities under the crisp cotton of professionalism. That’s why experimenting is often hard for them.
But human nature may not reward people or institutions that are unobjectionably, categorically attractive in the eyes of the world. We need something to get excited about, something interesting and unique. Something that somebody else may find unappealing, even ugly. The OK Cupid analysis suggests that really sparking some people’s attention and making them want to get close to you requires turning other people off.
Which could be very freeing. How many times have you heard someone in your organization say — or said yourself — that “if we’re for everyone, we’re not really for anyone.” Now we have some data to back up the thought. Create variance, as the OK Cupid staff advises. Get them disagreeing about you. You may find yourself with more passionate, and more numerous, fans.
8 Comments »