2018 was a transformative year for tech. Movements fuelled by diversity and inclusivity advocates led to a moral reckoning of sorts, forcing many companies to fully consider the ethical implications of their products. Obvious battlegrounds for this included facial recognition from the likes of Google and Amazon, and advertising from Facebook. Yet one area that has largely escaped public scrutiny regard: online dating.
From fake profiles to online harassment and offensive content, the $3 billion online dating industry is rife with problems, and many established practices taken from the offline dating world run counter to the goals of diversity.
“Dating platforms often feel segregated,” said Jenais Zarlin, CEO of Vibes, a San Francisco-based startup. “Grindr is for gay men, Transdr for transgender folks. There is definitely value in creating spaces like that, but it’s problematic to assume a transgender person is only interested in other transgender people.”
Vibes wants to foster meaningful connections between its users by enforcing a strict code of conduct and favoring a more inclusive approach. The company launched its dating app on iOS in October and says it has had thousands of downloads since. Users sign up through Facebook to create a profile and must adhere to a code of conduct before choosing their preferences.
One notable difference with Vibes is that it bypasses the traditional gender binary by offering its users three pronouns to choose from: him, her and them. If they’re transgender and select “her,” for example, they will appear in the stack amongst others who identify as “her.”
“When that transgender person matches with someone, it’s up to them to decide if it’s something they want to share and how,” added Zarlin.
OKCupid recently introduced a broader spectrum of pronouns (i.e. they/them), but as far as mainstream dating apps go, most were built for the binary and use gender identities rather than preferred pronouns.
Other services are adopting a more egalitarian approach to dating. Bumble, for example, sought to help women feel more empowered when it introduced its “Make the first move” motto back in 2014.
“I think Bumble has done something really important by calling attention to the need to shift the dynamic on dating apps,” said Vibes’s Zarlin. “At Vibes, we view the problem differently, however. We don’t think it matters who sends the first message. All communication, regardless of the type of connection you are looking for, should be rooted in respect.”
Much like Aretha Franklin’s famous song, meaningful connections start with “respect.” And in order to encourage it, Vibes bypasses the standard text-based exchange of most dating apps.
“Texting is a bad way to get to know someone, as it’s transactional and can feel really dehumanizing,” said Zarlin. “And it doesn’t give you a good sense of another person’s vibe.”
The swiping mechanism on Vibes is the same as other dating apps (swipe left for no and right for yes). But once two users match, they need to answer a conversation starter by sending a pixelated video of themselves. After the match and initial video exchanges, users are in control of the pixelation and can choose to turn it on or off. Additionally, Vibes has also set up an integrated reporting tool that allows users to report any discriminatory or violent behavior.
Believing in core values of respect and non-discriminatory behavior is one thing. And as 2018 has revealed, making sure that products and services translate this effectively is another. Many dating apps allow you to filter by ethnicity, religion, body type, hair color, eye color, among other attributes. In doing so, they can open the door to discriminatory behavior.
“Because we designed Vibes to center on inclusivity and respect, it’s important that our matching algorithms don’t additionally contribute to discrimination,” Zarlin explained. “We’ve eliminated written bios, which are often used to discount people based on trivial things. And our filtering is limited: you can filter by location, age, and the pronoun you are interested in vibing with. That’s it.”
Here’s to a New Year, and new efforts to make online dating a bit more respectful.