Women-run Bumble to Silicon Valley: User safety is the new cool
Last week, the dating app Bumble clapped back on allegations that it violated patents held by its competitor, Tinder, in a full-page ad in The New York Times. Using the familiar “swipe left” language, Bumble called the lawsuit a bullying tactic, and called on Tinder’s parent company, Match Group, to redirect its energies to address “bad behavior” on its dating platforms.
Bumble’s founder, Whitney Wolfe Herd, is familiar with the corporate cultures of Tinder and Match Group. She was part of the early team at Tinder, and her exit in 2014 included a sexual harassment lawsuit against co-founder Justin Mateen. Wolfe Herd’s suit alleged that she was stripped of her co-founder title because Mateen thought “having a young female co-founder ‘makes the company seem like a joke.’”
Wolfe Herd founded Bumble later that year to create a safe space for users to find romantic partners, friends, and business contacts. Bumble differs from all other dating apps in that it requires women to make first contact; the platform aims to “engineer a more accountable environment,” and it seems to be doing just that. And it is among the very few that are attempting to build those values — consent, safety, and accountability — into the core product, not as a half-thought add-on.
Amid growing cries for ethical standards in tech, users are becoming aware that technology is imbued with the values of its makers. Arguably, people from different social, ethnic, racial, and religious groups have different values; yet the tech we all use, from base infrastructure to application layer, is built by men — white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, native-born American men. We continue to call on Silicon Valley to diversify its workforces, yet the share of female engineers continues to decline, even as the tech sector grows. Women are still paid less, and their working environments are hostile, at best. Despite efforts to build women back into the pipeline, they continue to leave their jobs, costing the industry $16 billion a year. Women-led companies get only 2 percent of venture capital.
Excluding women from the development of a technology creates its single greatest vulnerability. Not just in business terms: Sure, you’d have more users if the girls who make up a 60 percent share of the video game market could play with a female avatar, or if a prosthetic human heart fit into more than 20 percent of women, as heart disease is a leading killer of American women. But, without women, and their perceptions of risk and safety, a tool becomes more dangerous. According to researcher Stephen Cobb, a preponderance of white men in leadership positions leaves companies unable to properly assess cyber risks. Cobb argues that white, male executives accept the risks of a potential cyberattack without understanding how it would harm the company’s reputation, its relationship to users, and its ability to survive post-attack.
Tinder fits this bill; its all-male founders, leaders, and board don’t understand that a track record of not responding to abuse complaints; Instagram accounts like Tinder Nightmares and Bye Felipe, which detail the most horrific advances men make; perfunctory Terms of Service that put stalking in quotes; and publicly describing the platform as a “robust advertising vehicle” may leave its users feeling insecure — at a very vulnerable moment in their lives. Much of the abuse the platform generates is traced to the rejection men experience when their advances are unheeded or unappreciated.
Bumble wants users to be happy, safe, and respected — those values are laced throughout the product and its support mechanisms. Tinder, like much of Silicon Valley, seems intent to simply make money on the backs of its users. Safety features, like allowing for women to start conversations within Tinder, are an afterthought and a selling point. It’s this value set that has made online harassment such an intractable problem. As tech companies refuse to substantively change their attitudes or make their products safer, their security fixes are inadequate. Tinder’s own Menprovement Initiative, for example, requires the women receiving abusive messages to perform the emotional labor of modifying the behavior of grown men. Twitter, likewise, often has to immediately reverse its newly launched “fixes.”
Eventually, this lack of concern for users harms a tool’s bottom line. You can only be called an infertile whore and get no support so many times before curtailing your usage or signing off altogether. Facebook is dealing with its users feeling betrayed, at an already difficult time for the platform. Twitter couldn’t sell for years because of its toxic reputation. Tinder also seems to not be doing that well; for a supposed juggernaut, it turned in lower returns this quarter over last year at the same time, right after the bump it received from last fall’s “Gold” feature launch. This gives the impression that not caring about users is economically unsustainable for tech companies.
Bumble’s values may be what people want in a dating app; Apptopia ranks it just behind Tinder in downloads, and its market share is growing. Perhaps the tech sector could learn that women are key to creating usable tools, and that it’s no longer cool to carelessly spew toxic bullshit onto the Internet.
You are what you code. Maybe that’s what’s got Tinder so scared.
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