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What We Don't Need To Know About Online Dating

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We've always been told that the more we know, the better.

Data is useful, to the extent that it provides a path to action that will (hopefully) yield more successful outcomes. If we know green tea reduces blood sugar, we can all go out and get green tea. Green tea does not elude us. (Heck, there are even things worth knowing that we can't personally act on, like what's up with Mars.) It follows then that if I know that the most popular women on online dating sites are Asian, 25-and-a-half-year-old, thrice-weekly drinkers, and I am very fair, Jewish, 24-year-old with erratic drinking habits, I can use this enlightenment to fruitful ends, right?

Yeah, no.

In November, the dating website Are You Interested found that, based on 2.4 million interactions on their site, white men and Asian women received the most attention from potential suitors, while African-American women received the fewest messages.

This week, dating website Plenty Of Fish released data that essentially paints a picture of the Online Dating Barbie and Ken. The site employed researchers to examine more than 1.8 million messages sent between heterosexual singles in the U.S. They found that a 25-year-old Catholic woman who owns a dog, describes herself as thin, and drinks alcohol three times a week is more likely to receive messages than any other woman. Her last relationship lasted between three and eight years, according to the analysis.

Well, congratulations to the seven of you for whom that is 100 percent true. Apparently the rest of us are out of luck when it comes to finding love -- or even a mediocre date -- on the Internet.

Plenty Of Fish also left us with a trait-by-trait breakdown for what men look for in women online:

Women who drink receive 4.4 percent more messages than the average woman on the site. Female non-drinkers receive almost 24 percent fewer messages. Well, bottoms up then.

You identify yourself as "thin." Thin women receive 41 percent more messages than the average woman. These are not real words. These words mean nothing. Not to mention the massive margin of error for reporting bias.

You are Catholic. Women who are Catholic receive 20 percent more messages than other religions. Wait, what? Why?

You own a dog. Women who have a dog receive 5 percent more messages. Those who don't have at least six or more cats, by which they will be eaten when they die alone.

To point out that the data is faulty is irresistible -- but not our chief concern here. The fact is, it doesn't matter. It does not help anyone to know that people they don't care about are failing to send them messages based on personal traits or behaviors they can't change -- and probably quite like about themselves.

What am I supposed to do with this information? I cannot become un-Jewish. I can only be as thin as a healthy diet, exercise and genes allow. When I see an allegedly cute dog, I feel nothing. None of these have ever been to the detriment of my dating life (with the exception of realizing it would not work out with a few canine enthusiasts), and if they are, it's a bad match to begin with. And no self-respecting person would, or should, adjust their behavior or appearance based on these findings. They are virtually meaningless, in all senses of the word.

These statistics aren't even useful to those who do possess the supposed highly-coveted characteristics. Does it elate them that they are the targets of the largest, likely least discerning group of suitors? Do they think "Thank God I was baptized, otherwise Lookin4fun247 might have passed me by." And what do said statistics imply about a 25-year-old, skinny, Catholic woman who feels as though her life has reached a standstill?

For the most-pursued online daters, reading these findings may only confirm suspicions they have about being targeted based on superficial traits. My Asian friends speak of a "yellow fever epidemic," faintly supported by "data," and they can't help but feel suspicious that anyone who approaches them does so based on fetishization rather than sincerity.

To be fair, not all data is created equal.

There is some sociological utility in investigating these findings. It is possible that these trends reflect the dating culture, and one sociologist concluded that racial discrepancies are likely a result of "preemptive discrimination," whereby one chooses not to message someone of a certain race because they don't believe they will be interested in them. This is worth knowing as it relates to the larger landscape of modern courtship -- and modern racial dynamics.

And of course both men and women have their preferences when it comes to attraction -- some broader or more evolved than others. Online dating provides a judgement-free zone in which to pursue them. But attraction encompasses so much more than a list of characteristics, even when it's happening over a computer. According to Plenty Of Fish, the most popular men on their site are brunette Christian athletes, who publicly state that they want children, drink socially, make between $100-$150,000 and have a graduate degree. The lesson here isn't "See! Straight women are picky and shallow too!" It's that distilling the ideal partner, male or female, into metrics better suited for a Census report than meaningful criteria for compatibility, helps nobody.

Online dating services, we appreciate what you provide us. But rather than tell us whose inbox is biggest and what their favorite food and blood type are, how about letting us tell each other what we want. My un-Catholic, un-dog-loving romantic life will be just fine.

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