It’s official: Big Brother Facebook wants to run your love life. No longer content to destabilize democratic institutions, fork over data on millions of its users, or spam you with invites to play FarmVille, Facebook will now play Cupid and personal matchmaker.
Of course, it’s easy to don your tinfoil hat and proclaim that, with Facebook moving into your romantic life, it’s going to be the end of days. But here’s the crazy thing: Facebook’s latest push might actually be a good thing. In fact, with a slew of key features designed to fight harassment, and, more importantly, keep users safe, Zuckerberg is making a compelling argument for users to drop Tinder and Bumble and start dating on the ‘book. The only catch is that if you want to be safe, you’ll have to make a Faustian bargain and provide Facebook with some of your most intimate data.
The Wild, Wild West
The world is a different place than it was when Tinder arrived on the dating scene in 2012. In a few short years, the app has transformed the online dating sphere from a vaguely-tragic dive bar that reeked of last-call desperation to a fun, flirty college party where you never know whom you’ll meet. So drastic was this shift that by 2016, Pew Research reported that 15% of Americans adults had used a dating app or website at least once in their lifetime. What’s more, online dating isn’t just for one-night stands: According to a recent Stanford study, 39% of heterosexual couples that started dating in 2017 met online. For same-sex couples, the number was 60%.
Clearly, online dating is here to stay, and with over 2 billion users, Facebook is apparently hoping that a rising tide will lift all ships. But that’s not to say Zuckerberg won’t be facing some stiff competition. On one end is Match Group, which controls 25% of the market and owns popular platforms like Tinder, Hinge, Plenty of Fish, and Match.com. On the other end is a more diverse scattering of market players. Gindr markets itself to the LBGTQ community, within which dating apps have become the most popular way to meet people. Meanwhile, apps like Bumble are deliberately designed to fight back against the sexism and sexual harassment that many female users experience. With companies like Tinder adding 500,000 users in a single quarter, you can rest assured that all of these companies are growing, and growing fast. But, in the scramble to gain new users, companies are failing to address some major safety concerns — and therein lies Facebook’s opportunity.
Enabling the Worst
In 1609, Shakespeare asked the world a memorable question: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” In 2015, one Tinder user did ol’ Will one better, saying, “I want to paint you green and spank you like a disobedient avocado.” The difference between these two lines is that one is romance and the other is, depending on your view, a God-awful pickup line or just plain sexual harassment. But the depressing truth is that the avocado line is mild in the scheme of things. As it turns out, over 57% of women and 21% of men say they’ve been harassed on dating apps. The most common threat women receive on these apps is physical violence, followed closely by generic death threats. Worse, these aren’t just empty words. As writer Teodora Pasca explains, dating apps have enabled everything from stalking to flat-out assault. One user explains how her date offered her a ride, only to drive her more than seventeen miles out of the city, assault her, and leave her stranded on a nature trail. Shortly after they met, the man deleted his profile.
All of this paints a depressing picture of online dating, one where abuse runs rampant and accountability runs low. So maybe it’s bizarre that Facebook — which regularly appears on lists of the most hated companies in America — would hazard what’s left of its reputation on an industry beset by so many problems. And to be fair, there’s a hefty amount of skepticism surrounding Facebook’s latest foray; after all, should users really give information about their love lives to the company that let Cambridge Analytica harvest the personal data of 87 million users without their consent? Still, Zuckerberg remains undaunted in expanding his digital empire, and in the case of Facebook Dating, he might actually solve some of the industry’s problems.
Leveraging Your Network
At the core of Facebook Dating is the idea that your personal network is the best defense against creeps. While traditional dating apps interact with Facebook, gathering information like your name, age, and pictures, they can’t actually integrate any of Facebook’s core features, like messaging. Facebook Dating can, and this makes a world of difference. For example, once you plan to meet up with someone on Facebook Dating, you can share the details and location of your date with your Facebook friends. This lets your friends keep tabs on you and your date, which is helpful, especially if things go south. All your friends need to do is check their inbox. Right now, however, Facebook is putting a time limit of one hour on the location-sharing feature so that people don’t share their information longer than they intended to. That means if your dinner date starts at 8:00, your friends will only be able to check on your current location until 9:00. It’s nice to see Facebook actually caring about privacy concerns, but that time limit seems a bit short. Still, it’s a promising start.
Facebook Dating also gives users the ability to date within very specific circles. While apps like Hinge, for example, have prided themselves on matching you with friends of friends, Facebook Dating lets you winnow this down even further, alleviating at least some of the fear of meeting online strangers. Member of a D&D group on Facebook? You can search for potential dates there. Attending a reading of your friend’s tired play? You can even find love amongst the other bored attendees. All of these features allow users to be a little more discerning in who they interact with, hopefully creating safer matches.
Users also have more substantial control over with whom they match. While most apps gather matches based on geographic distance, Facebook Dating will allow users to select whether they match with friends, friends of friends, or people out of their networks entirely. This last option is particularly appealing for LGBTQ+ individuals who might not be out in their community. As a final precaution, you can even block specific people from seeing your dating profile entirely. If you have a jealous or controlling ex, or if you simply want to avoid a sibling stumbling upon your dating profile, this is the way to go.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Facebook if it wasn’t using your data in slightly unnerving ways. As Facebook Dating product manager relayed to TechCrunch, the matching algorithms can use information from your normal profile — not simply your Dating profile. So, if you decide not to put your education information on your Dating profile, that doesn’t mean Facebook won’t match you with a fellow alumnus using that information from your regular profile. This all raises the big question: how transparent is Facebook being about the data used and generated by its dating initiative?
The Devil’s Bargain
Gizmodo’s Kashmir Hil wrote an interesting article in 2017 chronicling the way Facebook inadvertently was outing the real names and identities of sex workers to their clients through the “People You May Know” feature, which lists people the social networking giant thinks you might be friends with. Using over 100 different signals to recommend people, PYMK has been at the center of numerous horror stories : connecting awkward one-night stands, patients of the same psychiatrist, and people you literally just ran into on the street. What’s more, the algorithm that powers PYMK is a black box; Facebook won’t tell you how it gained that information. For sex workers, to whom physical danger is a real and continuous threat, this is their worst nightmare
For now, Facebook says it has no intention of monetizing its dating app. Companies won’t have access to the information generated, and you won’t be bombarded with ads while sorting through potential matches. That said, Facebook is far from transparent on its data policy. Only last year it was discovered that it’s Messenger App was syphoning off text and cell data from Android phones. And if the PYMK function is any indication, Facebook might be employing that data in less-than-savory ways. Considering how sensitive the information you could choose to give to a dating app is, users might want to reconsider before they create that dating profile.
In other words, users will have to make a choice. Facebook Dating is, by its features, arguably the safest dating app out there. Signing up, however, requires users to trust that Facebook won’t misuse the copious data it will collect on their love lives. But after a long and sordid history of privacy debacles, that might be a hard ask.
Culled by: Vivieanne Danielle