Can Facebook Fix the Dating World Tinder Created?

Before dating apps like Tinder, dates usually resulted from at least some baseline level of shared experience. Facebook wants to turn back the clock.

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A common complaint about dating in the time of Tinder is that people often end up on dates with people about whom they know little to nothing. As I wrote last year in a story about how Tinder and apps like it had transformed dating in just half a decade, being on the apps often means dating in a sort of context vacuum:

Friends, co-workers, classmates, and/or relatives don’t show up to flesh out the complete picture of who a person is until further on in the timeline of a relationship—it’s unlikely that someone would introduce a blind date to friends right away. In the “old model” of dating, by contrast, the circumstances under which two people met organically could provide at least some measure of common ground between them.

By all accounts, people still love using Tinder, Bumble, and other apps like them, or at least begrudgingly accept them as the modern way to find dates or partners. Last year, Tinder’s user base worldwide was estimated to be about 50 million. But when shopping through every potential date in your geographic area with little more to go on than a photo and a couple of lines of bio becomes the norm, people can feel burned-out, and long for the days of offline dating.

Facebook, a gigantic online repository for information about nearly 3 billion people’s hobbies, social circles, family members, job and education history, and relationship history—in other words, a gigantic online repository for people’s context—appears to have been paying attention to these gripes. Facebook’s matchmaking service, called Facebook Dating, launched Thursday in the United States after debuting in 19 other countries earlier this year, and it is explicitly trying to inject some of the more human aspects back into online dating through features that mimic the ways in which people used to meet-cute before the Tinder age.

Facebook Dating, which lives within the Facebook mobile app in a separate tab (it’s not available on the Facebook desktop site), promises to connect singles who opt into the service by algorithmically matching them according to geography and shared “interests, events, and groups”; users have the option of “unlocking” certain Facebook groups they’re part of and certain Facebook events they’ve RSVPed to in order to match with other group members or attendees. It also gives users the option of pulling biographical data from their Facebook page to populate their Facebook Dating profile: name, age, location, job title, photos.

Within the app’s privacy settings, users can also opt in or opt out of matching with their Facebook friends’ Facebook friends. The app does not match people with their own Facebook friends, unless explicitly directed to: The “Secret Crush” feature allows users to identify up to nine of their Facebook friends as people they have a crush on, and “no one will know that you’ve entered their name,” according to Facebook’s Newsroom blog, unless your name also appears on their Secret Crush list. In that case, Facebook Dating notifies both parties. (Facebook makes no mention of what happens if two, three, or—God forbid—all nine of a person’s crushes indicate that the secret crush is reciprocated.)

If those sound suspiciously like online versions of the old-school ways people used to find dates and meet partners—by joining groups and clubs, by meeting through friends, by going to events, sometimes even by telling a mutual friend about a crush and having them surreptitiously investigate and report back—that’s intentional. A representative for Facebook confirmed that developers wanted to address a couple of specific problems they saw with how existing dating apps had reformed, and arguably gamified, dating.

Earlier this summer, Facebook commissioned a survey of 3,000 Americans over the age of 18. It found that 40 percent of people who were currently online dating felt that the available apps and sites weren’t meeting their needs. It also found that similar interests were the top-ranked trait most people were looking for in a partner, over looks and financial prospects (which may be one reason apps like Bumble, which prominently features pictures and job titles but requires users to click through to a profile for more information, weren’t exactly cutting it for a good chunk of those surveyed).

As a result, the Facebook representative told me, the developers decided not to give Facebook Dating an instant “swipe” feature; instead of being able to approve or reject potential date candidates rapid-fire after having looked at only a single photo, Tinder-style, users have to open someone’s full profile before deciding to opt in or out on a potential match. The desire for deeper engagement with potential matches is also a big part of why the company decided that it will integrate Instagram stories and Facebook stories into Facebook Dating at some point in the next year, according to the representative—to show what potential matches are up to right this minute and offset the “static” nature of dating profiles as we currently know them.

Facebook Dating’s goal of creating meaningful matches through shared interests and activities has its skeptics; among them is Madeleine Fugère, a psychology professor at Eastern Connecticut State University who specializes in romantic relationships and sexual attraction. Fugère emphasizes that although people tend to think shared interests are more likely to lead to attraction, they’re hardly a reliable predictor. “Liking someone depends very much on that in-person ‘clicking,’ which is extremely hard to predict ahead of time,” she told me.

Fugère also questioned whether Facebook Dating could find success among what one would have to assume is its target market—single people in their 20s and 30s. While Facebook is aiming to re-create virtually the experience of meeting someone in person, it’s not clear whether users will want so much information transmitted online between themselves and someone they still have not actually met: Pew research has recently suggested that young people have been leaving Facebook, especially after the revelation that the voter-profiling firm Cambridge Analytica harvested the private Facebook data of millions of Americans ahead of the 2016 election. Perhaps relatedly, Facebook Dating is one of a few recent projects that seem intended to remind people of Facebook’s capabilities as a tool to create and maintain relationships. A recent ad campaign, for example, reminded viewers of Facebook’s origins—as a platform that connected people through shared friends and shared interests and facilitated the sharing of happy or funny moments, rather than a shockingly penetrable database holding a good portion of the global population’s personal data.

While Facebook Dating may certainly be a more curated, more individually tailored alternative to other dating apps, it’s still pretty robotic and random compared with, you know, simply talking to people who seem attractive or interesting out in the real world. Camille Virginia, the author of The Offline Dating Method, for example, understands the appeal of the “Secret Crush” feature—which, the Facebook representative told me, was a direct response to the survey finding that 53 percent of respondents who were currently online dating had a crush on someone they already knew in real life but were too nervous to ask them out. But, Virginia pointed out, if you like the thrill you get from disclosing to a helpful dating robot that you’re into someone and wondering whether that person has also told the dating robot that they’re into you, then you’ll love the thrill of “finally chatting up that cute guy you’ve seen at the dog park recently—or asking that intriguing woman in line behind you at Starbucks which drink she recommends.”

And to some people, a more curated and tailored approach that matches people according to their shared interests isn’t an improvement over the totally uncurated, here’s everyone who’s available to you experience that other apps offer. Ross, a 24-year-old currently living in California (who requested that I use only his first name because he didn’t want to discuss his dating life publicly), used Facebook Dating while he was in the Philippines over the summer and immediately found the logical end point of the benefits of an algorithm that matches people based on shared interests and connections: As soon as he logged on, he matched with an ex-girlfriend he’d previously unfriended.

“I think Facebook connected me with her because of mutual [friends], same place of residence, and pages that we liked,” he told me. He didn’t get in touch, he says. He just ignored her profile, “and had a laugh.”