While the MatchSC survey has clear quarantine motifs scattered throughout — from the Corona bottle on its first page to the team’s “Fight on(line)” message — the idea was born long before the first case of the coronavirus emerged.
It started last summer in a $6 million mansion near Palo Alto collectively referred to as “The Habitat.” Fifteen people, primarily entrepreneurs and creators from USC and Stanford, spent the summer hot-tubbing with the USC club wrestling team, tinkering with startups and avoiding noise complaints from their neighbors — who happened to include Walmart’s founding family.
“People lived in closets, people lived under the stairs — it was just this big hacker house,” said Markie Wagner, one of the quiz’s developers. “It was a lot of spitballing ideas, a lot of hanging out.”
But underneath the colorful experience was an experiment. Wagner said that it was their first real-life exploration of community and match-making.
“Could you build a tight-knit community out of people who didn’t know each other at all?” said Wagner, a junior majoring in computer science at Stanford who previously attended USC. “It was pretty intentional who was brought into the house.”
Since then, more than 5,000 students who indicated interest in finding a “Platonic (Work from HOMIE)” or “romantic” soulmate were emailed their matches in waves Tuesday night through Wednesday after signing up for MatchSC, a five-minute matching quiz created by “bored Trojans stuck at home.”
Starting March 24, the quiz opened for a week and involved a series of questions ranging from the quiz-taker’s gender identity to their USC pet peeve. While some questions had students indicate their level of agreement with statements like “it’s very important to help the people around me,” others were more lighthearted — prompting students to select their “biggest flex” from options like “not having ‘public figure’ in my Instagram bio” or “Soundcloud mixtape on the come up. Just watch.”
“I thought the questions were really funny,” said Darren Tsai, a junior majoring in neuroscience. “Some of the questions were framed in a way or the question itself was not really representative of somebody’s personality … but for the most part it was pretty fun to fill out. There were some that kind of threw me off, though, like ‘On a scale of one to 10, how kinky would you say you were?’ I was not expecting to see that one.”
The MatchSC team comprises a group of friends — Grant Stenger, Nat Redfern, Melisa Seah and Wagner — most of whom met at USC during the 2017-18 school year and have previously worked together on projects like Lavalab, USC’s start-up incubator.
While Redfern, Stegner and Wagner spent their summer days interning in the Bay Area and their nights at the mansion, Seah, a December 2019 graduate, was experimenting with community-building through High Table, a startup professional networking community. The startup community, incubated through Harvard’s Innovation Labs, hosts 15 meals from New York to Los Angeles and brings together a dynamic table of people unlikely to meet otherwise.
The community experiments merged this spring when Wagner invited Seah to join the MatchSC team. Several team members had conducted prior academic research on building friendships and meaningful relationships.
Wagner said that she found three important aspects in determining whether a deep relationship would form: physical proximity, mutual friends and compatibility in personality and values. An interest in finding ways for people to escape loneliness and feel connected combined with the realization that many dating apps did not consider these components sparked the idea to test a matching service at USC.
“There was research backing all three of those different things, so we were interested in what ways could we try and test out some of those hypotheses and try to create matches that were better than what might be done on some traditional social media or dating app in a fun side-project way,” Wagner said.
Much of the original idea was started in the house, Stenger said, and after working on the project throughout the school year, they planned to launch it around Valentine’s Day. Exams got in the way, and, coincidentally, the timing of the release seems to have worked in their favor.
“All this [coronavirus] stuff hit and we were like, ‘OK, people are now genuinely really bored, now we can help connect people that are just looking for something to do,’” said Stenger, a junior majoring in applied and computational mathematics. “It’s a good way to bring people back to the campus ethos and the great atmosphere … The timing worked out well even though it was kind of an accident.”
The team believes their algorithm, which is based on thoroughly researched psychological profiles and inspired by famous tests like the Big Five Personality Test and Schwartz Value Survey, gives MatchSC the potential to create effective connections in the age of quarantine.
“[Students] can trust the algorithm, it’s pretty research-backed and not whipped out of a hat,” said Wagner, who has had experience building AI algorithms through a past internship at Google. “There’s a lot of thoughtfulness that has gone into the algorithm itself.”
Stegner said that certain parameters, like gender identity and sexuality preferences, take priority in the algorithm. Other factors carry less weight but are still highly considered: A Leo will be more likely to get another Leo, a person who eats a lot of fast food will be more likely to get someone who eats a lot of fast food.
“Someone who really enjoys saving the world will probably enjoy someone else who will also enjoy saving the world,” said Redfern, a junior majoring in cognitive science. “Even if you answered juice box as your favorite drink, that’s not going to make a huge difference between one match and another, but we’re probably going to consider it. It’s going to be in there, just a little bit, but maybe location or major might matter significantly more.”
If a person shared their Instagram or zip code, those factors could come into play as well. Stegner said a geographic function puts in the zip codes to minimize the total distance between people.
While the team stands behind their quiz, some respondents were more skeptical.
“It’s like that thing with those bootleg ‘Harry Potter’ sorting house quizzes where there’s like four options and each option is distinctly like, you know, what house it’s trying to get at,” said Ariann Barker, a freshman majoring in writing for film and television. “That scale of one to 10 question that was like … ‘do you believe that people should be equal’ or something like that — imagine putting anything less than 10 and having to confront that, like having a quiz like that be like, ‘Oh yeah, are you a racist or a homophobe?’”
Wagner said that once responses closed Sunday, the team realized there was a lopsided dating pool, and they had to adjust the algorithm to make sure all genders and sexualities were being matched as optimally as possible. Along with filtering out responses made by fake emails, this led to a delay in sending the matches.
“We were up all night,” Wagner said. “We didn’t really know what the data was gonna look like until we closed the survey on Sunday. Turns out we needed more than one day to account for all the shifts in data. We just wanted to give better matches that we felt were more rigorous and optimal than just sending out random matches.”
Since results have been released, Wagner said she has already heard some funny stories, like the algorithm matching one respondent with their “hookup’s roommate,” and said she is open to MatchSC possibly continuing in the future.
“Originally it was kind of like a one-off quirky thing, and I think it probably will be, but people have really enjoyed it … sometimes these things become a tradition on campus,” Stegner said. “It could be cool to run it again.”