Incident 280: Coffee Meets Bagel’s Algorithm Reported by Users Disproportionately Showing Them Matches of Their Own Ethnicities Despite Selecting “No Preference”

Description: Users selecting “no preference” were shown by Coffee Meets Bagels’s matching algorithm more potential matches with the same ethnicity, which was acknowledged and justified by its founder as a means to maximize connection rate without sufficient user information.

Suggested citation format

Lam, Khoa. (2013-07-30) Incident Number 280. in Lam, K. (ed.) Artificial Intelligence Incident Database. Responsible AI Collaborative.

Incident Stats

Incident ID
280
Report Count
2
Incident Date
2013-07-30
Editors
Khoa Lam

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I have nothing against Asian guys.

In fact, when my roommate told me the other night that he sometimes sees John Cho (Harold, of Harold and Kumar) at his gym, I squealed. I briefly considered joining the gym, but then I remembered I've Googled Cho's marital status so many times that I actually know off-hand he is unavailable.

And I swear I met my soul mate briefly in Japan. Daisuke, if you're reading this, our five-hour stroll around Kobe was the best date I have ever been on, hands down!

But when I checked the “No Preferences” box next to “Ethnicity” on Coffee Meets Bagel, an online dating site that sends you a match every day at noon, I didn't realize that would mean I'd receive a steady string of Asian men. In my first 11 days on the site, eight of my matches were Asian and three were South Asian.

Awkward. How did that happen?

The Kang sisters — Arum, Dawoon and Soo — started Coffee Meets Bagel almost a year ago in New York, aiming to attract busy young professionals who are looking for something in between a hook-up and a serious relationship and don't want to invest time weeding out messages from creeps.

Every day you have 24 hours to “Like” the match the site gives you (known as your “Bagel”), “Pass” on your match or “Give” your match to a friend. When you and your match Like each other, the site sets you up on a private texting line that expires in seven days, enough time to meet for lunch or a drink and decide whether your Bagel deserves to know your real phone number.

The service expanded to Los Angeles in late March and opens up to 11 additional cities this month.

Before starting their business, the diligent Kang sisters interviewed executives from eHarmony, OkCupid and several smaller, failed dating sites. (Arum, the CEO, has an MBA from Harvard, and Dawoon, the COO, has one from Stanford.) They read through all of the research about online dating. And they tweaked an existing marketing algorithm to connect users who have Facebook friends in common.

At least that's how the site markets itself: a good place to meet friends of friends, because research says you'll be 37 percent more likely to want to connect with them than with randos.

Except I've been on the site for almost three months, and fewer than a third of my matches and I have had friends in common. So how does the algorithm find the rest of these dudes? And why was I only getting Asian guys?

On Coffee Meets Bagel, your preferences for age, religion and ethnicity define your match pool. So much for the post-racial Obama era. Dawoon says that significant data supports the idea that online daters in the United States use ethnicity and religion to determine who they are willing to go out with. “[Race and religion are] very interlinked to your values and your upbringing,” she says.

Coffee Meets Bagel's users skew white, Asian, Jewish and educated. The school with the second highest number of graduates on the site is Columbia University, followed by the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. (NYU is number one.) Only 17 percent of the site's 60,000 or so users are not white, Jewish or Asian.

OkCupid's fascinating and now-defunct research blog found in 2009 that more white women than any other demographic — 54 percent — responded “yes” to the question of whether they strongly preferred to date someone of their own racial background. Similarly, 53 percent of white women (and 74 percent of Jewish women!) told Coffee Meets Bagel that they only want to date white men.

So when I told the site that I was willing to date a man of any ethnicity, the algorithm perked up its ears. But signing up for a site that offers me only Asian men feels a little silly. It's tantamount to fetish! I was torn. I didn't want to tell the site that I refused to date Asians, but I also didn't want to get matches that were exclusively Asian.

This was starting to feel like the prisoner's dilemma, so I called a friend of mine who understands game theory and works in finance. She informed me that I was indeed feeling a game theory pressure to move towards what's called a “Nash equilibrium” since I was being forced to consider the preferences of all of the other “players” in this “game” — ie, the other white women on the site, who influence my matches.

She even drew me a fancy diagram to help explain!

Even the homepage seems to understand who this site is really for…; Credit: Coffee Meets Bagel

You see, if most other white women limit their matches to white men, there are very few white female matches for the many Asian men who include white women in their preferences. And since I was one of those few white women who allowed Asian men, I got tons of Asian men as matches. In order to have the possibility of connecting with anyone else, I had to give up my ability to see any Asians, just as the rest of these narrow-minded “players” had. Choosing “not-Asians” was the Nash Equilibrium, and I was couldn't stop myself from heading there!

Finally, I deselected “Asian” in my preferences. It's not like I'm being racist, I told myself. It's the economics, stupid! That was two months ago. I now get six bagels a week. All have been white except for three. Which is just weird because I thought I lived in Los Angeles, not Beverly Hills.

But I do like pretty much everything else about the site. You get a quick little rush of adrenaline each day at noon, when you get an email with your Bagel's age and university in the subject line. Might this be THE ONE? you wonder. And then you see that he has described himself as “stoic” and “adversarial” and you hit Pass and you move on with your life.

Over text message, some guys drip with desperation: “I'm so happy that you liked me back – there's a first for everything – I'm waiting at Starbucks right now in weho – where are you?” one wrote.

Others panic unexpectedly. This one guy started a conversation by asking for my favorite movies. I listed a few and then asked if film was a passion of his. He responded by falling apart:

“I don't know, did I embarrass myself in our movie discussion just now? Maybe I'm just lying to myself.”

And I went on some dates with my Bagels, sure. There was the guy who told me he was getting us beers from his (parents') fridge and brought back glasses of orange-flavored, non-alcoholic Emergen-C instead. There was the guy who brought me to Mozza on our first date and planned us a romantic weekend getaway to Palm Springs on a Google Doc after our second. There was the guy who made me so uncomfortable at lunch that I made an excuse after less than an hour and ran out without validating my parking. So it goes.

Then, the other day, after I had rejected the latest dude (He lives in Fullerton! He's an actor! He likes “Eating marshmallows straight from the bag”!), a new box popped up.

Here are some Bagels that don't meet your preferences, the box said. Do you want to look through and Give some to friends? I clicked through.

Seven of the ten were Asian.

I closed the box.

Thanks for reminding me how racist I am, Coffee Meets Bagel. I feel great about that.

Coffee Meets Bagel: The Online Dating Site That Helps You Weed Out the Creeps

Yet, it seems like a relatively common experience, even if you aren’t from a minority group.

Amanda Chicago Lewis (who now works at BuzzFeed) wrote about her similar experience on Coffee Meets Bagel for LA Weekly : “I've been on the site for almost three months, and fewer than a third of my matches and I have had friends in common. So how does the algorithm find the rest of these dudes? And why was I only getting Asian guys?”

Anecdotally, other friends and colleagues who have used the app all had a similiar experience: white and Asian women who had no preference were shown mostly Asian men; latino men were shown only latina women. All agreed that this racial siloing was not what they were hoping for in potential matches. Some even said they quit the app because of it.

Yet Coffee Meets Bagel argues that they actually are hoping for racial matches — even if they don’t know it. This is where things start to feel, well, a little racist. Or at the very least, that it is exposing a subtle racism.

“Through millions of match data, what we found is that when it comes to dating, what people say they want is often very different from what they actually want,” Dawoon Kang, one of the three sisters who founded the app explained in an email to BuzzFeed News. “For example, many users who say they have ‘no preference’ in ethnicity actually have a very clear preference in ethnicity when we look at Bagels they like – and the preference is often their own ethnicity.

I asked Kang if this seemed sort of like the app is telling you we secretly know you’re more racist than you think.

“I think you are misunderstanding the algorithm,” she replied. “The algorithm is NOT saying that ‘we secretly know you're more racist than you actually are…’ What it's saying is ‘I don't have enough information about you so I'm going to use empirical data to maximize your connection rate until I have enough information about you and can use that to maximize connection rate for you.’

In this case, the empirical data is that the algorithm knows that people are more likely to match with their own ethnicity.

Perhaps the fundamental problem here is a disconnect between what daters think selecting "no preference" will mean ("I am open to dating all different types of people") and what the app's algorithm understands it to mean ("I care so little about ethnicity that I won't think it's weird if I'm shown only one group). The disconnect between what the ethnicity preference actually means and what the users expect it to mean ends up being a frustrating disappointment for daters.

Coffee Meets Bagel selling point is its algorithm based on data from its site. And they have indeed analyzed the bizarre and somewhat disheartening information on what kinds of ethnicity preferences people have. In a blog post examining if the myth that Jewish men have a “thing” for Asian women, the company looked what the preferences for each race was (at the time, the app was 29% Asian and 55% white).

It found that most white men (both Jewish and non-Jewish) selected white as a preferred ethnicity. However, you can select multiple ethnicities, so to see if white Jewish men really were more likely to select only Asian women, they looked at the data for people who only selected one race, which would indicate they had a “thing” for Asian women.

What they found instead was that white Jewish men were most likely (41%) to select just one race preference. And for those that did, it was overwhelmingly for other white women, not Asian women.

A similar analysis of women’s preferences showed that of white women who only preferred one race, 100% were for white men.

The app’s goal is to use what they’ve learned about people’s behavior to make the best possible match suggestions. What’s unclear is if it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you’re only being shown potential matches of your same race, it’s most likely that you’ll end up picking a same-race date. And the idea that the majority of couples are the same race isn’t exactly a total shock: it’s true. Ok Cupid has also analyzed race in dating data that is kind of a one way train to bummersville.

But still, something feels extremely… wrong. And perhaps what’s most shocking is simply that Coffee Meets Bagel is being completely upfront about a kind of racism that genteel people don’t want to cop to.

The Dating App That Knows You Secretly Aren’t Into Guys From Other Races

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