For a medium that’s supposed to bring people together, dating apps can be a pretty icky place.
There’s the unsolicited dick pics and “ghosting” (see glossary, below), and, on a much more terrifying level, rape and death threats.
But Whitney Wolfe is trying to find a better way, inventing the first women-driven dating app, Bumble, which already has 19 million users worldwide.
Although it’s still in a “soft launch” phase in Australia, it’s the company’s second-fastest growing member base, with more than one million “swipes” since January.
By the time the company holds its official Australian launch in December, Wolfe plans to make Bumble the one-stop relationship shop for women who are tired of the misogyny in both dating apps and networking apps.
“Up until now every mainstream social platform has been helmed by men so the product hasn’t been thought [in terms] of how it benefits women,” Wolfe told Fairfax Media by phone from the US.
And she would know. Wolfe, 27, was one of the co-founders of Tinder, which has become one of the world’s most successful dating apps, and also one of the most maligned.
But in 2014, when Wolfe’s romantic relationship with one of Tinder’s other co-founders, Justin Mateen, ended, Mateen sent Wolfe a series of abusive messages, among them calling her a “whore”.
She sued for sexual harassment and discrimination, reportedly settling the case for about $US1 million.
While Wolfe is prohibited legally from discussing the matter, the experience led her to create Bumble, what she terms the “first female-first platform in a mainstream capacity”.
Since then, other “women first” apps have surfaced, including ride-sharing service Shebah, the women-only alternative to Uber. But none have matched Bumble’s success.
“We don’t only have a voice but we have incredible impact to drive growth and the next phase of social media,” she said.
We’re not trying to build an excuse [for male behaviour], we’re trying to reprogram behaviour.
Whitney Wolfe, Bumble founder and CEO.
How Bumble is different
Bumble works on a few basic premises that makes it stand apart from other dating apps. Only women can initiate contact, and matches have only 24 hours to initiate a chat, or the match disappears, to discourage “warehousing”.
Men who send photos of their genitals, post shirtless profile photos or are reported for other abuse are banned, and sometimes publicly shamed by the site.
Wolfe said it’s essential Bumble takes a zero-tolerance approach to bad behaviour or else the app’s reason for being is nullified.
“In the real world, we adhere to rules … we adhere to ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ … all of a sudden, you open the ‘door’ for someone on your phone and you can abuse them? That doesn’t make sense,” she said.
“Unfortunately until Bumble it has never been encouraged or built into the product. We’re not trying to build an excuse, we’re trying to reprogram behaviour.”
In some ways, it’s a sad indictment on the behaviour of a small minority that has necessitated apps such as Bumble in the modern dating landscape.
But while such apps create safer spaces for women to meet other men or women, human behaviour can mitigate some of the benefits, said Dr Evita March, a psychology researcher at Federation University Australia.
“[A] trend I have noted is that individuals make initial contact via these apps but then move to a free messenger app … the [original] app is no longer able to moderate the behaviour,” Dr March said.
Just shoot me
Give men freedom to send photos to a woman, Dr March said, and often it isn’t long before they send her a photo of their penis.
“Unfortunately, there does not seem to be an easy answer on how to avoid such behaviour,” she said.
Dr March suggests paid apps have a lower rate of such encounters, “as the individuals are paying to use the app and are therefore more serious [about dating]”.
“If you are unable to use a paid app, use an app like Tinder, that must be associated with a Facebook profile, or Bumble, where [women] make the initial contact.”
Dr Nikki Goldstein, author of Single But Dating, thinks niche apps will eventually dominate the crowded online dating space.
“There is a lot of negativity towards dating apps but there are marriages, babies. We can hook up with people easily … We’re aware of the obstacles but let’s celebrate the fact we can meet people easily,” she said.
“You have to look at what dating experience you want and choose the app that matches the experience. Don’t be on everything.”
While she’s a fan of Bumble, Dr Goldstein said it won’t suit everyone. There are still women who like men to make the first move. And that doesn’t make you anti-feminist.
“It’s a difficult area – the whole pro-women movement gets mixed up with feminism. Women have a right to do whatever they want to do.”
From bedroom to boardroom – and beyond
Wolfe is taking the Bumble premise and broadening it to the friendship and professional spheres, with Bumble BFF and Bumble Biz, respectively.
As one of a minority of females in the start-up space – only 17 per cent of tech start-ups have at least one woman founder, according to tech researcher CrunchBase – Wolfe feels a responsibility to “engineer kindness” in the social space, irrespective of whether the connections are sexual, platonic or professional.
In September, she will launch Bumble Biz as a women-driven alternative to LinkedIn, which has 500 million users worldwide.
Is the professional networking world really as bad as the dating world? Heck yes, said Wolfe.
“Networking, like dating, does not hold even standards to women as men. Men use [networking] apps to belittle and dumb us down,” she said.
On traditional networking apps, Wolfe said women are susceptible to be “treated like objects – to be looked at as legs and heels rather than brains”.
“What we’re trying to solve is not just putting women in control but giving women access to opportunities where they don’t lose confidence or their voice.
“It’s time this changes and not just in the dating world. It’s time it’s changing for all the connections we make.”
But Wolfe insists Bumble isn’t trying to become the next Facebook.
“There’s a lot of blank space between dating and Facebook,” she said. “We want to be the Facebook for people you don’t know.”
And she doesn’t discount the value of forming satisfying female friendships.
“It is so difficult as an adult female to find friends. We come out of highly social environments, college, high school. We graduate, we move on … and while we chase our dreams, loneliness follows that. You spend a lot of time keeping in touch but not being in touch physically,” she said.
She said apps such as Bumble not only offer women a safe space to find one another, but also spread a positive message about resilience and how women talk about themselves.
“We encourage failure among young men, we celebrate it … It’s a badge of honour for a man. Yet attach those same words and experiences to a woman and society writes her off … it’s so dangerous.
“Every woman in this world is allowed to define themselves how they want. Every woman will have setbacks … It’s not about the fall, it’s how you get up that counts.”