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How To Make Online Dating Less Segregated, In One Easy Step

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People on dating sites like OkCupid may be unlikely to reach out to someone of a different race. But when someone from another background reaches out to them, they'll be much more likely to write back.

Forget singles bars. More and more Americans are going online to find dates. Some estimates show that around 1 in 3 couples now meet over the Internet.

However, online dating continues to mirror offline dating in one troubling way: It's still highly segregated.

"Race as a dividing factor is much more important than basically any other attribute," UC San Diego sociologist Kevin Lewis said. In studying interactions on OkCupid, Lewis observed very few people reaching out to users of another race. Online daters direct their romantic overtures mostly toward people from the same ethnic background.

But Lewis did discover one way some users are chipping away at online dating's racial barriers. He found it by looking not only at first messages on OkCupid, but also at replies. What he found was striking.

People might be unlikely to initiate a cross-racial online conversation. But when someone of a different race initiates a conversation with them, they suddenly become much more likely to write back. And those recipients then become more comfortable sending messages to users from another race.

"If someone from a different background contacts you and you reply, you're actually more likely to initiate contact with other people from that same racial background," Lewis said. "Receiving a message and replying actually increases your own interracial openness."

That increased openness only lasts about a week before OkCupid users go back to self-segregating. But Lewis says this data shows that prejudice in online dating isn't always as strong as we might think it is.

Photo by UrbaneWomenMag/Flickr

Researchers estimate that around one in three couples now meet online.

Lewis admits that his study only applies to heterosexual Americans, and doesn't include data on people who gravitate toward niche online dating sites catering to specific ethnic and religious groups. But he argues that the trends he describes might play out in offline courtship too.

"I don't think this dynamic is limited to the Internet," he said.

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