Whitney Wolfe is defending dating apps and hook-up culture. “What do you think people do when they go out to bars on a Friday night?” she says, clearly frustrated. “While you’re in a bar you could meet the love of your life — but there’s a good chance you’re going to hear about someone going home for a one-night stand. If you use an app to have your one-night stand, or you use the app to get married that’s entirely up to you. And if a man and a woman want to hook-up — good for them. Own it.”
Wolfe is a serial dating-app entrepreneur. The 26-year old co-founded Tinder, and she has now brought us Bumble, a new dating app that is also predicated on left and right swipes but deals women the winning hand — men cannot initiate conversations.
She left Tinder last year and filed a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit against the company in June 2014. She claimed executives had tried to strip her of co-founder status as they apparently thought that having a young woman in a position of power made them “look like a joke”. She had been involved in a relationship with Justin Mateen, another executive who has since left the company, while working there, and its breakdown was pored over in the case. Tinder denied the claims; the issue was settled out of court with no admission of liability. Wolfe reportedly won $1 million.
This is not the interesting story any more. Online dating has prompted headlines again as a result of a Vanity Fair article, “Tinder and the dawn of the dating apocalypse”, by journalist Nancy Jo Sales, which ran in this month’s issue and predictably went viral on social media. It purported that so-nicknamed “hook-up apps” are proliferating a culture of misogyny, devaluing monogamy and might even be contributing to the increase of impotence in young men.
Wolfe’s comments are not a rebuttal of the Vanity Fair article; she’s diplomatic when asked to address it directly. “I think you cannot make a hypothesis about a product based on only a few experiences,” she says. “And I don’t think that’s what she was trying to do. I think she did a great job — she just chose a select group of people and told their personal experiences.”
But Wolfe’s new business could be a rebuttal of the kind of culture that Sales claims dating apps typify; or if not a rebuttal, then at least a counterbalance. Bumble tries to reset the “heteronormative rules in our current landscape” — a complicated way of saying what she puts more simply moments later: “You have to wait for him to call you; you have to wait for him to text you; you have to sit at a table at a bar and let him come to you if you think he’s cute”.
On Bumble, both men and women can create profiles, swipe and match. The woman must start the chat within 24 hours otherwise the match disappears. “We really want you to take action on the match,” Wolfe says, by way of explanation. “What is it really going to do for me if I have 500 matches and don’t speak to anybody?” Photographs are watermarked, presumably to discourage aggressive sexual images.
Bumble is growing fast: it has seen a 15 per cent week-to-week growth, hosted more than five million unique female-led chats, and seen more than 1.5 billion swipes. “Our data is showing it is really having the impact and the results we had hoped for,” Wolfe says. What’s the ratio of men to women? “We’re seeing a really healthy ratio. We’re slightly more female in many of our big cities but everywhere else it’s pretty much spread 50/50.” It’s growing in London, where “we don’t have as many downloads but have very high engagement.”
Wolfe’s description of why men and women need Bumble makes me a bit sad. “When it comes to education or career or monetary gain women are expected to make just as much money, to be just as successful, to have the same level of degree,” she points out (even if we don’t — yet). “When it comes to our romantic or our dating lives we are not equal and we are not expected to be equal. And when we do want to see control we’re automatically perceived as desperate or forward or crazy.”
“I’ve spoken to a lot of men about this,” she continues, “and they say to me, ‘When a girl makes the first move, I like it but I also think, what’s her past? Why is she doing that?’ I can tell you personally that I’m quite extroverted, I’m quite confident — and a lot of my friends are too. So I’m not allowed to text first? Why can I not approach a guy? I’m not desperate.”
So essentially, Bumble’s accelerated, women-first approach boils down to giving women an “excuse” to message first and message quickly, without looking “desperate”.
“It’s OK if you speak to this guy — he’s not going to assume anything of you, because he knows the app — he knows that you need to do it. It’s basically: blame Bumble. We’re trying to give you all the excuses that you might otherwise have felt uncomfortable [using].”
It’s dispiriting that it needs to be spun that way but many young women do feel devalued and anxious by the disposable culture of Tinder. Is Bumble a feminist app? “Yes.”
Obviously, boys feel devalued too — one of the criticisms of Sales’s article is its suggestion that men are looking exclusively for casual sex and girls are looking exclusively for relationships. But there is something gentler about Bumble’s approach, which can surely benefit both sexes; and at the very least it could renew the excitement of both sexes for the whole project in the first place.
Bumble’s not just for heterosexual couples — Wolfe insists the app will be “inclusive of all humans. Not just straight men and women — we’re really trying right now, we have our heads down and we’re working tirelessly to ensure that we introduce an LGBTQ optimised version.”
The Texas-based team is predominantly women — seven to one man — though the development team, which is based in London, has both male and female developers. Was hiring predominantly women intentional? “If a man and a woman walked into the room and applied for the same job I would not take the woman because she’s a woman and I would not take the man because he’s a man,” she insists. “I’m going to take whoever is the most passionate and best-suited for the role.”
She demurs on the issue of Silicon Valley’s bro-culture. “I am so busy, focused just on Bumble, that I’m really not out schmoozing with the rest of the tech scene.” Besides, Bumble is based in Austin. “My life is in Texas — I went to college in Texas, my mother lives in Texas, my best friends are here.”
Can we still meet people IRL? She admits she met her boyfriend offline — how off-brand — but contests that dating apps have ruined meaningful, real-life connections. “I don’t think it’s about fear or anxiety, I think it’s about a lack of time. An app cannot change the way a person thinks, all it can do is give them access to something. If this is leading to hook-ups, well then maybe hook-ups are leading to something else. It’s just human interaction at the end of the day.”