As a graduate student at Harvard University, sociologist Kevin Lewis began working with a data set that tracked something that scientists had never really been able to systematically study: the earliest stages of courtship. By studying interactions in online dating, he could probe human flirtation in its natural environment in unprecedented detail. Who initiates the interaction? Who reciprocates? What happens next?
“This is just something people haven’t been able to do before because our data is on marriages or boyfriends and girlfriends. You have a couple, but you don’t see the back and forth that led to them being a couple,” said Lewis, now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. “It’s like hanging out at a big nationwide bar and watching who walks up to who and asks to buy them a drink and who gets rebuffed.”