Facebook is notorious for how it handles users’ data.
“We don’t exactly have the strongest reputation for privacy right now, to put it lightly,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg joked earlier this year to a nearly dead silent crowd.
That may be part of why Facebook Dating, which dove into the crowded US market for online dating in September, appears to have landed with a resounding thud.
The stock price of online dating giant Match Group, which owns Tinder, Hinge, OkCupid and other dating apps, rebounded in October after investors decided that Facebook, the company running the world’s largest online community, wasn’t a threat. Positive press for the new service has been nonexistent, and a comparison of mentions in search terms shows it trending far below several competitors. According to social media tracking website socialmention.com, Tinder is mentioned online an average of once every four minutes. Facebook Dating ekes out a mention once every four hours.
And when people do talk about Facebook Dating, it’s often to swap stories about the people they wish they hadn’t met.
Facebook is a very late entrant to the lucrative world of online dating, which has strongly entrenched players like Match Group, Bumble, and Coffee Meets Bagel. Match Group racked up revenue of $541 million in the third quarter of this year alone. Yet in theory, Facebook Dating would seem well positioned to steamroll the world of online romance. The service is already connected to 2.45 billion monthly active users. But it hasn’t made waves so much as bounced off the surface.
I decided a week on Facebook Dating might reveal some insights into why.
I have a fatalistic outlook on Facebook’s grip on my privacy. After years of using it to sign up for countless apps and websites, letting them know what kind of people I like to date seemed like just another drop in the ocean of data they’ve collected on me. Although after a week of browsing through suggested matches, I’m fairly certain whatever mysterious algorithms the service uses haven’t figured out whom I want to date.
The service is unremarkable in how it functions. It comes off a generic mixture of Tinder and Hinge: Users can post pictures and answer questions in their bio. You can either directly comment on a picture, or simply like or dislike recommended users. People who have liked you show up in a “stack” of profiles you can browse through.
“Facebook Dating isn’t about swiping,” Facebook product manager Nathan Sharp said at launch.
In practice, I found this to be only partly true. Instead of speeding through profiles with a swipe, I sped through with either a tap of the “Like” or the “No Thanks” buttons at the bottom of the screen. Many of the profiles featured a single photo and no description, making it difficult to find something interesting to say. So instead of all that likely futile extra effort, why not simply revert to tapping yes or no, the same way one swiped right and left on Tinder?
The one thing that makes the service unique is its “secret crush” feature. This allows users to search through their friends and pick one as their crush. If the other person does the same, the pair match.
I found this interesting in the same way a child finds a box of matches interesting.
Secretly declaring your interest in someone feels odd. It’s very slightly exciting, because it allows you to make a move on someone without taking any risks. That feeling faded as I realized that likely none of the people I put down as crushes used Facebook Dating, and that I may as well have written a letter to myself.
My disappointment turned to horrified fascination as I realized that the feature allows users to add virtually anyone from their friends list. Bosses. Old high school teachers. Relatives.
The unsavory nature of the secret crushes feature may exemplify another reason why Facebook Dating has failed to achieve liftoff: Users don’t like the way it mashes together spheres of life that were traditionally kept apart, a phenomenon described in academics as “context collapse.”
“In previous times, you were able to say, go out to dinner, and you wouldn’t have to worry about seeing your boss and maybe your school teacher all in the same space,” said Apryl Williams, a Harvard sociologist who studies online dating services. “Whereas Facebook and Twitter and all of our other social media create a space where our social lives are converging in one space. And I think because people are particularly sensitive about dating, that’s one area of context collapse that they don’t want to merge.”
Secret crushes isn’t the only feature that enables users to potentially engage in questionable romances. Facebook Dating has also been criticized for enabling cheating. On most popular dating apps, like Tinder, profiles are public. Prospective cheaters risk their profiles being shown to people who know them and can expose their attempted dalliances. On Facebook Dating, users’ relationship status is not displayed, and friends are never shown as suggested matches. That means that users can pursue whomever they like without fear of being noticed by people in their social circle. Executives at Ashley Madison, the Internet’s premier destination for cheaters, have acknowledged it might be competition.
I quickly realized that for me, Facebook Dating was a barren wasteland. I regularly ran out of suggested matches in the space of a few minutes. So I took drastic measures to increase my options — expanding the radius of how far away matches could be, and joining Facebook groups and RSVPing to events so that the app could search within those pages for other users. But this only added a handful of prospective matches.
That might be because few people my age — 20s — are on Facebook. After the social media giant revealed last year that it had leaked the personal data of 87 million users to outside parties for political purposes, young people abandoned the platform in droves. A Pew survey of US users found that 44 percent of respondents between 18 and 29 had deleted Facebook from their phone in the past year.
“We’re having these conversations where people are saying, ‘OK, enough is enough,’ ” Williams said. “I think it is feasible to say that the average user is more aware of privacy concerns than we were previously, and therefore they may be more reluctant to engage in additional services from Facebook.”
But even if young people run from Facebook’s reach, they may not be able to hide. Analysts have speculated that the company may be preparing to storm the $12 billion market for online dating by acquiring Match Group, much in the same way it has dominated picture sharing and internet chatting after buying Instagram and WhatsApp.
My final tally, after a week of diligently devoting time to the app, stood at a grand total of five matches. That includes the single conversation I had, which trailed off and went nowhere. I don’t plan on returning to the service, especially when other apps work much better for me.