There will be no love for dating apps until they change their toxic cultures | Nichi Hodgson

Allegations that dating app Badoo has a toxic, misogynistic work culture will not shock many in the dating app industry. Regardless of the truth about the particular claims – and Badoo’s holding company MagicLab has called the Forbes report “reckless” – too many similarly sized dating apps share a toxic working culture where the safety, dignity and respect due to both dating app employees and their users comes at the cost of a million gamed profiles – and the profits they rake in for a select group of privileged white male executives.

In many ways there is a culture war between some of the male CEOs and the engineers who have confected apps in line with their Weird Science fantasies, and everyone else who works there who are genuinely driven by a impulse to help people find love. Over the years, I have heard too many tales of female employees subjected to gross levels of sexism (hired for their looks, forced to create their own “honeytrap” profiles on the apps to be used to hook despondent customers, not to menton those harassed and assaulted). Racism is also rife. I’ve heard stories of black and Asian employees commandeered to be the diverse “faces” of the business while they try to assuage the concerns of BAME users experiencing racism, whether in the form of a complete lack of matches or direct abuse. At the same time, LGBT+ employees are grilled on the details of their sex and dating lives by hetero-normative execs.

While the often straight, white male developers and CEO and COOs of dating apps make the million-dollar decisions about which user groups to titillate next, the diverse workers who make up everyone else at the companies wrangle with ways to conceal their employer’s prejudices. Apps are promoted as a place where everyone has a chance of finding love. The truth is they don’t, and only certain users are given an optimal number of choices every time they log on.

The topic of non-white faces returning poor click-through rates and whether the businesses should care is a discussion I have often heard of taking place in the industry, frequently in the presence of black, Asian and mixed-race staff who felt deeply uncomfortable. In too many cases, the decision to do or not do something was influenced by developers who were only concerned with the performance of two things – the rate of click-throughs to the ads and the buoyancy of the shares they had in the company. Dating apps have so much potential to help address the endemic racism that affects people’s matching options (as decided by obtuse algorithms). But they can also address people’s own prejudices, which have an impact on whom they will favour. Few have attempted to realise that potential.

The approach to the LGBT+ community has been similarly damning. In a recent investigation, I found that the apps do little to protect users in countries such as Egypt, Lebanon and UAE where they are at risk. One gay interviewee I spoke to called Tom (name changed), who works for a large US app, says the margins of profit LGBT+ people generate for the majority of hetero apps are too low for them to care, and the bosses openly admit this.

On many levels, the business of love is sold to us as feminised – just look at the airtime given to female romance writers, dating coaches and therapists. In reality it is yet another male institution. It was ever thus – just look through history, at everything from troubadour love poetry to WT Stead’s class-boundaried marital agency to know that straight, white men have too often made the big bucks when it comes commodifying romance.

No matter what your advantages in life, love – and the quest for it – is a great leveller. Yet until women, the LGBT+ community and people of colour start to radically reshape the dating app industry, it will remain the least desirable place to find it.

Nichi Hodgson is a sex and relationships author and broadcaster


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