I’m an online dating evangelist. I’ve swiped, I’ve messaged, I’ve boldly gone where no right-thinking relationship-seeker has gone before (to see a vampire movie on a first date), all in the name of finding love, or at least a cool guy to hang out with. To this end I’ve been more successful, or perhaps luckier, than my friends. On my fourth or fifth date arranged through OKCupid I met my current boyfriend, who happens to be the most communicative, fun, and kind person I’ve met, online or off. I’ll spare you the gush-fest; suffice it to say we’re an awesome match.
I don’t attribute this to an alignment of stars, to the mercy of the web gods and goddesses, or even to OKC’s algorithm, which supposedly uses questions such as “What’s worse, book burning or flag burning?” to determine how suited you are for other users. Instead, I chalk up my positive online dating experiences -- which, with the exception of a brazen date who rudely shushed fellow theatergoers (referred to amongst my friends henceforth as “the shusher”), has been without horror stories -- to my careful evaluation of a potential match’s username before arranging a date. Puns and hyper-masculine references were mostly no-gos. They were, to me, the pseudonym equivalent of a cheesy pickup line. Much more appealing were earnest self-depictions or vague, consciously nonsensical noun mish-mashes. They represented a dry humor than aligns with my own.
Admittedly, my personal history of username selection isn’t without blemishes. My first, chosen for a dial-up CompuServe account, was PoolPrincess6030, a blatant ripoff of my BFF's moniker, sport2040. But I’ve since become a more deliberate person (read: adult human) and tend to think my usernames align with my personality. For OKC, I chose my initials punctuated by underscores, and tended to prefer equally minimalistic, cryptic self-representations, as opposed to, say, song lyrics or anything with “Brooklyn” affixed to it.
I was curious about whether my tendency to critique usernames more harshly than photos was universal, and decided to speak with a linguist about whether or not the language of our online dating avatars says something about who we are.
I began with Christian Rudder, OKCupid’s founder and the author of Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking), a book that uses data from the dating site to draw conclusions about message language, message length, depressing discrepancies between male and female age preferences, and more. But he concluded that from a data standpoint, usernames are too unique to draw specific conclusions.
“There’s too much variety in the names to really get a sense of whether one particular one affects incoming messages,” he told me in an email. “There are certainly trends -- people append the word 'taco' a lot, but that’s because we suggest it, kind of as a joke. And of course there is the birth year suffix -- cuteguy1975, for example.”
Rudder is right. Username trends are difficult to map. Unlike gender or income level, there are limitless options and combinations of traits. But, another data-driven researcher I spoke with, Susan Herring, a professor of information science and linguistics at Indiana University, found the question intriguing. She conducted a small study to determine whether there are trends in username choice, and whether the way we choose usernames has changed since Internet’s nascent days. She surveyed over 300 usernames on OKCupid, coding them for information relating to the following categories: gendered, real name, numbers, trying to be funny, geographical reference, hobby/interest, profession, sex/love, physical attributes, nonphysical attributes, sentential, “random” words, meaning unclear.
Based on these tags, she was able to draw a few conclusions about usernames, how men and women differ in choosing them, and how choosing usernames has changed since the advent of the Internet. Because it draws on a smallish sample size, the study is neither comprehensive nor definitive. It does, however, illuminate broader trends about how our online language use has changed over time.
Women are more likely to use descriptive adjectives such as “cuddly.”
“Females tend to include more personal attributes in their usernames,” Herring says. “Moreover, the kinds of attributes they mention differ from those mentioned by men.” While "cuddly," "silly," "sweet," and "faithful" were all used in the women’s profiles she surveyed, men gravitated towards "sexy," "cool," "mellow," and "great."
Usernames have gotten longer and include more information than in the past.
According to Herring's survey, usernames on OKCupid are an average of 10.5 characters. She compared this with the number of characters in usernames from Internet Relay Chat logs she's saved from 1999 -- names on that site were an average of 6.6 characters. This can of course be explained by the sheer number of users on OKCupid, but also the fact that, as opposed to IRC, the site is transparent, and allows users to see names, photos, ages, and other information by scrolling through a profile. This frees up users to get inventive; names now include "profession, interests, personal attributes and attitudes, and what the user is seeking or promising," according to Herring.
A lot of OKCupid users are totally unimaginative, and just stick with using their real names.
A whopping 42 percent of the usernames surveyed by Herring included users' real names, be it first names, last names, or initials. "My impression is that many of the real names on these platforms are used out of a lack of imagination, since real names aren’t required or expected," Herring said. Harsh.
Dudes still use 1337speak -- women stick with more conventional grammar.
"Several male names and one female name incorporated nonstandard orthography characteristic of casual Internet communication," Herring said. This includes subbing in "1"s for "i"s, but also riffs on the AOL chatroom trope of suffixing a username with "4u".
People don’t love listing their birth years, or the cities they live in.
Although 53 percent of usernames in Herring's survey included a number, very few of the numbers seemed to have personal meaning. "Five of 71 men and six of 93 women included their birth year, and two men and two women included the current year, 2015," Herring said. Age, after all, is just a number -- a number that's listed prominently on OKC user pages, so displaying it in a username is a little redundant. "Most numbers seemed to have been included to differentiate the username from other similar usernames in the system," Herring said.
Only five percent of usernames surveyed included geographic information, and zero percent included pop culture references such as band names.
People do love listing their genders.
Fourteen percent of users surveyed by Herring included gender identifiers in their avatars. Among men, "son," "mrman," and "hulk" were used; among women, "girl," "queen," "gal," "goddess," and "woman" were popular. Compared with the IRC data, trends among OKCupid users were generally similar across genders. In the 1999 survey, women were more likely to identify with their genders, and men were more likely to use humorous or random names or words to represent themselves.
Herring's findings are especially enlightening when compared with data on the other means of making a first impression online; the wording of the nerve-wracking first message. An analysis done on Rudder's blog surveyed 500,000 first contacts, and revealed that netspeak as well as physical compliments are big turn-offs, whereas specificity and literacy are valued.
So, using usernames are an opportunity to succinctly present who you are among an endless scroll of options. Some, according to Herring's survey, seem to use the chance to indicate how squarely they fall into traditionally valued gender roles. But most, perhaps hoping to make the experience of online dating more personal, start it off by telling you their name.