I analyzed 10,000 Craigslist missed connections. Here’s what I learned.

As much as I’ve always wanted to be the subject of someone’s missed connection, I doubt I’m suited to it. Aboard public transport, my go-to facial expression is a stern, furrowed brow. “Solving the crisis in the Middle East, no doubt,” my fellow passengers probably sympathize, contemplating the task of fixing the world’s thorniest geopolitical dilemma from aboard the subway and letting me be.

Not that any of this has stopped me from posting missed connections myself. I can’t recall what I wrote, but after some virtual digging I found the subject lines of my posts buried years deep within my inbox:

“Girl in blue/ white floral dress on N train headed uptown at 9pm Monday” - m4w (missed connection)
“Cute brunette girl reading who shared my table at The Bean on Monday” - m4w (missed connection)

That there exists a digital town square where lonely hearts can declare their feelings without fear of public rejection is both lucky and improbable, but the hit rate, by all accounts, is low. I’ve yet to hear any firsthand stories of missed connections that have resulted in anything more than a date or two before the romance petered out. Still, if it seems strange that a quirky section of a website that prides itself on an aggressively dial-up-era design has gained such traction in popular culture — all in spite of the scarce likelihood of finding love — look no further than the motivations of gold miners or oil prospectors. Each successive romantic relationship is a failure until it isn’t, and the lousy odds of forging a real connection don’t have much impact on our inborn optimism.

It may have been my own failures to connect that spurred me to take a closer look at the habits and behaviors of other posters. It also could have been the odd voyeuristic appeal of the whole missed connections section, putting those private and vulnerable declarations of affection into a ruthlessly public, yet anonymous, context. Finally, I suspect it was also rooted in my old psych grad school mentality, making the promise of a large data set, untainted by the specter of observer effects, too tempting to ignore. Who were these people who posted hundreds of messages each day? To see, I gathered the missed connection postings from the nine largest US cities and got to work.

Over the course of January, I collected more than 10,000 missed connections from New York, LA, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, and Dallas. I analyzed the language, the people who looked and whom they looked for, the days they posted, the words they used, their ages, and a dozen of other points of comparison. And so, without further ado: the missed connections.

New York seems to be a city manufactured for missed opportunities to meet strangers. There is the pervasive reach of the subway, the relatively scarce number of drivers, the never-ending throngs of people. There is, furthermore, New York’s take on big-city loneliness that so many newcomers discover: long days at work, bookended by lengthy commutes that take New Yorkers to the far reaches of the vast metropolis. You won’t be heading to drinks in Brooklyn if you finish work at 6 in Midtown and catch the homeward-bound 1 train to Washington Heights, whether or not you’re savvy enough to change from the express to the local at 96th Street. Indeed, of all the cities New York had the highest number of missed connections. Initially, this seemed to be all about numbers: Of course the largest city in the country would have the most posts.

Los Angeles, however, dispels that notion (mouse over the circles in the map below to see each city’s population and missed connections count). The second largest city in the US, LA sits at the bottom of the tally, with only a few hundred missed connections posted during January. I should note here that if you’re anything like me, your internal sleuth rears up, and you begin to postulate that this is because Angelenos drive everywhere and are never within a 10-foot radius of any prospective strangers.

Posts and population for nine US cities in January 2015

  • Population
  • Posts
  • Posts/population
  • To get a sense of the true likelihood of landing a missed connection in the cities I’ve mentioned, I worked out the number of postings for every 10,000 inhabitants. The news for lonely New Yorkers isn’t especially heartening: New York City sits on the tail end of the rankings, with just over three missed connections per 10,000 inhabitants; Los Angeles comes in dead last. The cities whose residents are most likely to seek out that alluring stranger are Dallas, Phoenix, and San Diego, but even with Dallas’s first-place ranking of some 12 missed connections for every 10,000 people, things are pretty bleak. Still, it could be worse: The Whitlams, an Australian indie-rock band, once pronounced, “She was one in a million, so there’s five more just in New South Wales.” Against that backdrop, your chances of a missed connection are orders of magnitude more promising.

    I hesitated to delve into posting times. Did they mean anything? I’d had doubts. I first assumed that people would be tripping over themselves to post as soon as possible, raising the chances that the object of their affections would see their ad, but the more missed connections I read, more doubt crept in. Some people, with evident exhilaration, posted minutes after the fact; others waited a day or two before giving in and throwing caution to the wind; others waited years; others still wistful decades. This last category tended to be the most affecting: a self-aware note by an English professor whose memory of a chance encounter with a woman he’d never see again remained undimmed for 40 years, or a teacher who shared an indelible kiss on a distant, mournful day at the Coney Island aquarium. (Sophie Blackall has written the book on, or rather of, missed connections, illustrating dozens in sharp and charming style, and the latter post may be found therein.) Eventually I came to the conclusion that at the very least, the times should reveal whether people took time off from their workdays to indulge in a bit of romantic daydreaming.

    Times of missed connections postings

    The times and days when people post, depicted in the heat map above, suggest that they do. Throughout the US, the most lovelorn days seem to be Mondays, from early to late evening. There is, nevertheless, a good deal of variation from one city to another: Angelenos hardly post, and the few relative spikes in postings occur almost exclusively toward the start of the week. Houstonites, meanwhile, try their hand at romance on early Tuesday afternoons; Dallas, with the highest concentration of missed connections, has an impressive spread from Monday to Friday, with its inhabitants posting throughout the workday and late into the evening. Those solitary nighttime yearnings strike me as the most genuine and unadorned, bringing to mind the words of Philip Larkin, that eminent English chronicler of death and loneliness, who writes of waking up “in soundless dark” and thinking: “Most things may never happen: this one will, and realisation of it rages out in furnace-fear when we are caught without people or drink.” Who better to reach out to, in those desperate moments, than an idealized stranger representing the sole bulwark against the hereafter?

    A recent study replication suggested that while women could detect flirtation with relative accuracy, men tended to label all interactions with women as, “She wants me.” I began to wonder whether this unwavering image of oneself as Casanova would be reflected in the posting times of men and women. As far as I could tell, it was: Women tend to start slowly, leaving their posts until they clocked out of work (with a responsible peak around lunchtime). Men, meanwhile, seem to have little interest in workplace propriety and begin their lovelorn postings in earnest soon after lunch is over.

    Posting habits of men and women, by hour

  • Men
  • Women
  • And what of the sheer quantity of posts? Did men outnumber women as radically as my original numbers first suggested? Yes. A resounding, unequivocal yes. Below, I’ve visualized the ratio of men to women in each city; I’ve also shown the number of posts by men versus those by women. The degree to which men outnumber women on Craigslist is staggering, particularly on the West Coast; maybe LA men are especially sensitive to the possibility of a chance encounter, or perhaps they’re just generally more optimistic about all those hours in the gym paying off. In any case Los Angeles men post 5.3 missed connections for every post made by a woman. New Yorkers, for their part, are much more egalitarian, with men’s posts outnumbering those of women by a relatively modest ratio of 3 to 1.

    Male : female ratios

    In an exceptionally insightful New Yorker piece, Nick Paumgarten, discussing online dating profiles, remarks that “demonstrating the ability, and the inclination, to write well is a rough equivalent to showing up in a black Mercedes” — partly, he says, because “males know that the best way to get laid is to send messages to as many females as possible. To be efficient, they put very little work into each message and therefore pay scant attention to each woman’s profile.” By this logic, I expected people wanting to impress a potential crush to put some hard yards into their messages; no Great American Novels, to be sure, but something witty, teasing, playful; in other words, the verbal equivalent of a black Mercedes. If you’ve had a chance to sample a few of the selections on offer in the missed connections section, you are, by now, smirking at my naiveté. Much like in real life, the board is populated by a mixture of occasional gems filled with earnest feeling and self-reflection, a mass of posts whose allure ranges from to on the color scale, and a small but impassioned band of people who seek to reconnect with former neighbors from years back in hopes of finding a foot mistress or offering themselves into indentured sexual labor. Star-crossed lovers, these are not. Below, you can find the most commonly phrases for each group (keep in mind that in a category like “women seeking women,” which had few posts to begin with, even an infrequently occurring set of words may get flagged if used, by chance, on a couple of occasions). The larger, light blue circles represent the men and women who post the connections; each contains two darker circles that represent whom they’re looking for. The white innermost circles indicate the most commonly used phrases.

    Most commonly used phrases in missed connections posts

    That sex-based disparities in language exist is clear, but I wondered — were these, perhaps, linked to the posters’ ages? Sophie Blackall, the illustrator of the missed connections book I mentioned earlier, noted that missed connections are mostly an under-35 game, and I began to wonder whether this was indeed the case.

    In the chart below, I’ve used the axes to depict the length of posts and the average ages of the posters. Each of the four groups — men seeking men, men seeking women, women seeking men, and women seeking women — are represented by circles of different colors, and can be toggled on or off by clicking on the legend in order to get a clearer view of the spread. Hovering over any of the circles will show you all other groups in the same city. The size of each circle, as in the first chart on this page, represents the number of missed connections posted.

    Lengths of posts and ages of posters across cities

    While women tend to post missed connections less frequently, the posts they write are often longer than those of men. From the scatter plot above, you can see that women’s posts, regardless of whom they’re directed at or what city they’re in, are lengthier. Men looking for men write the briefest messages, with straight men writing slightly more verbose ones; straight women write more still. Women looking for other women seem to write the most. It’s key to note, however, that whereas all men are fairly consistent regardless of their location or sexual orientation, women in different cities can differ by significant amounts, and are much less uniform in the amount they write.

    Women looking to connect with strangers also tend to be younger than their male counterparts, with mean ages in their mid- to late 20s, while men posting missed connections tend to be between ages 33 and 37. This, as it happens, is fortunate for the men. Jonathan Soma, head of Columbia’s data journalism program, mapped out the number of singles in US cities and found until about 35, single men overwhelmingly outnumber single women. By the mid-30s, however, the balance begins to tip in men’s favor, and single women begin to outnumber single men. (There is, unfortunately, no data on the proportion of singles by sexual orientation, so the following qualifier applies uniquely to straight men and women.) In other words, by the time those 30-something men decide to post a missed connection about a striking woman on their commute, they are more likely to find her single than they would have when they were younger; meanwhile, because 20-something single men outnumber 20-something single women, those women, too, are more likely to find their missed connections available.

    Thus end the numbers. Now that the means and medians have been plotted and graphed, where does a detailed analysis leave us? More confident in our cartographical knowledge of the vast romantic landscape? I’m not sure.

    We can all remember those moments of potential connection with that seemingly perfect stranger, the glances we regret not turning into conversations, and the sinking sense of disappointment that followed. But sifting through all this Craigslist data only serves to highlight how improbable it is that a Missed Connection will become an actual connection in real life. Even in Dallas — the place with the most missed connections per capita, with 12 for every 10,000 residents — the odds are still heart-wrenchingly low. By all objective standards, you’d expect the missed connections section of Craigslist to fade into obscurity.

    Except it hasn’t. Despite the long odds — something Craigslist users readily admit to — there are still dozens of posts every day and thousands every month. Users still seem to latch onto the idea that their post might be that unlikely one in ten thousand. That a small corner of the internet with relatively few success stories to speak of continues to attract such a steady stream of hopeful romantics speaks to a comforting streak of optimism in our nature. They all turn up with a seemingly similar hope — that perhaps this last post will be enough.

    Ilia Blinderman is a freelance data journalist whose work has appeared in Quartz, the Toronto Star, and others. You can follow him on Twitter here.