With Her Dating App, Women Are in Control


Ms. Wolfe, a founder of the better-known rival dating app Tinder, which was the subject of a damning Vanity Fair article suggesting that it promotes hookup culture disadvantageous to women, left the company in a tangled manner stemming from her relationship and subsequent breakup with another founder, Justin Mateen. She later sued for gender discrimination, accusing her ex of publicly calling her a “whore,” charging that the chief executive had dismissed her complaints as “dramatic” and that her male colleagues had stripped her of her founder title because having a woman on the founding team would “make the company seem like a joke.” The case was settled out of court, with Ms. Wolfe receiving a reported $1 million and company stock.

“I think everyone in this room has had terrible dating experiences or been in an emotionally unhealthy relationship,” Ms. Wolfe said carefully.

It is no secret her relationship with Mr. Mateen fell into that category, in part because dozens of their text messages were published on gossip blogs like Valleywag and TMZ. “But I’ve thought long and hard about this,” she added, “and I think a lot of the dysfunction around dating has to do with men having the control. So how do we put more control in women’s hands?”

Most heterosexual women who have played the online dating game have cringed or worse on occasion. Accounts like Tindernightmares, detailing the most horrific pickup lines, and ByeFelipe, which calls out men who turn hostile when rejected, don’t have millions of followers for nothing: They are snapshots of what it is to be a woman swiping online, for whom harassment is a rite of passage. There are men who won’t swipe a woman above a certain age (often 29), unrequested crotch shots, that notorious OKCupid report about racial preferences and all sorts of other depressingly archaic behaviors, as detailed in pop psychology studies and books like “Dataclysm,” by Christian Rudder, the founder of OKCupid. According to a study from the American Psychological Association last year, Tinder users report lower self-esteem, self-worth and dissatisfaction with their looks, with women more affected.

Enter Bumble — or what has been called “feminist Tinder.” It won’t change the rules of dating overnight, but in the ecosystem of online dating, it aims to be a little less agonizing for women. It features photo verification that assuages users’ fears that they might be getting catfished (lured into an online relationship with a false identity) and security that makes it easy to report harassment. The company says its abuse report rate is among the lowest of its competitors, at 0.005 percent.

Photo

Whitney Wolfe, far left, holds a meeting at headquarters. The app is two years old and employs about 35 people.

Credit
Drew Anthony Smith for The New York Times

And the tolerance for nastiness is low. After a female user sent screenshots to Bumble of a conversation with a guy named “Connor,” in which he ranted about “gold-digging whores,” the company barred him, detailing its thinking in an open letter that ended “#LaterConnor.” Another man was barred for fat-shaming. Users regularly receive notifications to “bee nice,” sometimes with saucy emojis.

But its main innovation may be that it lets women be the hunters, not the hunted.

“I always felt that for me as a woman, I always had to wait around,” Ms. Wolfe said. “In all other arenas, I was ambitious and a go-getter, but when it came to dating, I wasn’t supposed to go after what I wanted. And so I essentially said, O.K., here’s what we’re going to do: Women make the first move. And they’re going to do so in 24 hours or the match disappears, so she feels encouraged to do it.

“Much like Cinderella, if she waits, the carriage is going to turn into a pumpkin.”

Of course, not every woman wants to make the first move, or feels comfortable doing it. “It strikes me as just another thing that we as women have to do,” Meredith Fineman, a digital strategist in Washington, said with some weariness.

And if you’re one of those people who still subscribes to “The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right,” the 1995 self-help book that advised women to act elusive and demure, wait for the guy to make the first move and thus end up with a wedding ring, Bumble may seem radical.

But have we really moved on from the old-school rules of attraction?

Ms. Wolfe thinks technology turned the traditional mating dance into more of a rumble. “I’d read a lot about the psychology around rejection and insecurity, and I had noticed that when people feel insecure or rejected, they behave aggressively, erratically,” she said. “Especially when you can hide behind a screen name or a profile picture. So I thought, how can we reverse-engineer that?”

Her solution: Men have to wait for a woman to reach out — they can’t initiate the conversation — so rather than feeling rejected if a woman doesn’t reply to their pickup line, they feel flattered if she reaches out to pick them up.

Emily Witt, the author of “Future Sex,” which documents her experience as a single person in her 30s trying to understand dating and courtship today, thinks the app helps clear up confusion. “A lot of contemporary dating, a lot of the kind of sense of unease,” Ms. Witt said, “comes from people not knowing how they’re supposed to ask and roles they’re supposed to play, because so many of the dating rituals are so patriarchal. Yet even so, a lot of women are still reluctant to ask a guy out. So I think the revolution of Bumble is taking that uncertainty completely out.”

Ms. Wolfe did not initially plan to change the dating game. She was 23, unemployed and living with her mother when she took a trip to Los Angeles to visit a fellow alumna of Southern Methodist University. The hot water went out, so they went to another friend’s house to use the shower. That friend was Mr. Mateen. That night, they had dinner with his buddy Sean Rad, who was working at a tech incubator owned by IAC, which would eventually become the birthplace of Tinder. He needed someone to run marketing, and Ms. Wolfe was available.

She didn’t have a career plan, exactly, but she had had plenty of jobs. In college, she sold tote bags to raise money for animals affected by the BP oil spill. Later, she volunteered in orphanages in Southeast Asia, excitedly phoning home to tell her parents she was going to start a travel website. “They were like, ‘Can you just focus on not getting malaria?’” she said. After college, she spent a month in a photography program in New York and worked a few odd assistant jobs before moving back in with her mother.

At Tinder, Ms. Wolfe said, she took the app to S.M.U., got sorority women to sign up, then immediately crossed the street to the fraternities and told them all the hot girls were on the app. When she started Bumble, she did much of the same, taking it to universities, signing up college women and assuming — as good marketers do — that where the women went, the men would follow. It was a crowded market, but Bumble now claims 800 million matches and 10 billion swipes per month. It ranks second in top grossing Apple downloads in the Lifestyle category, second only to Tinder.

It was a condition of Ms. Wolfe’s settlement with Tinder that she not discuss its terms. But she made it plain that leaving the company came at considerable cost, not all monetary. Almost overnight, she became what one reporter called the “Gone Girl” of Silicon Valley. To some, she was a heroic survivor of toxic male start-up culture. Others felt that she had manipulated her way to power and that the text messages showed her to be as volatile as any angry ex.

“For a good amount of time I didn’t feel like me,” she said. “And I think eventually my subconscious just said, ‘Go to work. Just go to work.’”

She eventually began working on a social network for teenage girls called Merci, focused on compliments (the tagline: “compliments are contagious”), and it became the basis for Bumble. The Russian entrepreneur Andrey Andreev, of the European dating behemoth Badoo, stepped up to invest.

The company, which now has 35 employees globally (including two former Tinder colleagues), has added Bumble BFF, a matching service for platonic female friendships; is preparing to roll out Bumble Bizz, a networking app; and has acquired Chappy, an app for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

All of this expansion, however, has not been without hiccups.

Recently, Bumble introduced a subway campaign in New York that used the slogan: “Life’s short, text him first” — only to realize that not every woman is looking for a him, and some “hims” now identify as “hers” or something else. “We really regretted that,” Ms. Wolfe said, noting that Bumble users will soon be able to choose from a number of gender identities. Now the slogan reads: “Make the first move,” which also happens to be the working title of the memoir-meets-dating guide Ms. Wolfe recently signed up to write for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin.

The company is also offering webinars for college users in which experts advise on subjects from “how to do your taxes” to “how to recognize sexual assault,” and getting ready to roll out a Siri-like character called Beatrice, which will call you during a date to make sure you’re fine. Ms. Wolfe also said users would soon be able to chat with an on-call gynecologist (her own).

“Look, are we solving the world’s problems by allowing women to make the first move on a dating app? No,” Ms. Wolfe said. “But I do believe we are helping to change some very archaic norms.”

As if on cue, the doorbell rang. It was a delivery man with a bouquet of flowers for Bumble’s head of college marketing, from a guy she had met on the app.

It had been going well — they had been on a half-dozen dates — until her friends found a video of him engaging in a lewd act online. She didn’t want to ghost him. But for the moment, she wasn’t responding to his texts.

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