If you’re a millennial woman who has been single in the last decade, chances are you’ve used Bumble. For many of us, it was the app that changed the heterosexual digital dating landscape by reversing traditional power dynamics and putting women in charge. Because while on Tinder, Badoo, and Bumble’s other competitors, anyone you matched with could message you. On Bumble, the woman had to message first.
It was this selling point that first encouraged me to sign up and actually start going on dates with the men I matched with – on other apps, I mostly just swiped for fun. But Bumble was always different; it was ahead of the curve.
Now, though, I’m concerned it’s about to go a little too far forward.
On Tuesday, Bumble’s founder Whitney Wolfe Herd announced she will be stepping down, becoming the company’s executive chair; she will be replaced as chief executive by Slack boss Lidiane Jones. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Jones outlined her vision for the company, saying she plans to integrate more artificial intelligence (AI) features into Bumble’s products.
“AI can play such a big role in accelerating people finding the right person, finding the right friends and the right community," she said. I had to re-read the sentence a couple of times.
The conversations around AI that are happening right now are exciting, terrifying, and hard to fathom – though I’d say it’s mostly the latter two. There is talk that AI could revolutionise healthcare systems, help people with disabilities, reduce inequalities, and even combat fake news. But could it help us find love? Really?
I understand that Bumble wants to be forward-thinking, and in many ways, this conversation is an extension of one that was had when online dating first came about. Clearly, those sceptics were proven wrong. Plenty of my friends met their partners and spouses on apps, as I’m sure yours have, too. Maybe it’s even how you met your current partner.
But that doesn’t mean we need to throw any more tech into the mix. Dating apps are already fairly dehumanising – and I’ve long argued in my work that anyone who does find love on them is pretty lucky because the system is against them from the start. They are by their very nature inauthentic, given they reduce human beings to two-dimensional profiles listing their height and star sign like they’re applying for a job.
One consequence of this, I’ve always thought, is that we treat the people we date from apps poorly. The sheer volume of users means we see them as flimsy fast fashion items; we try them on for a bit before disposing of them and moving on to the next newer, shinier thing.
How can AI possibly make that any better? Is it going to start telling us what to say to prospective matches, making the whole thing even less authentic? Will it help us craft the perfect profile based on what we tell it about how we want to present ourselves? Will it start offering out manipulation tactics in order to woo the man or woman of your dreams? It’s hardly the stuff of Richard Curtis films.
There are apps that exist that use AI to help people with online dating. One, called Meet Millie, promotes itself as an AI “dating assistant”. I tried it out for an article a few months ago and it was utterly useless, suggesting I send messages to matches that can only be described as unhinged (eg, “I’ve seen you’ve not replied; you’re not ghosting me, are you? Haha!”).
Sure, the technology might become more advanced and somehow be able to make suggestions based on how we actually sound. But that is even more terrifying. Haven’t we complicated modern dating enough already? Can’t the tech giants just let us get on with things for a bit? One can only hope.