Voices: Strava’s new feature will only benefit one type of runner – predatory men

‘Creating patterns is something that I’m hyper aware of when I run’  (Gemma Abbott)
‘Creating patterns is something that I’m hyper aware of when I run’ (Gemma Abbott)

From this week, Strava users will be able to privately message other users within the app. Strava says the feature is intended to be used as a way to motivate your friends on the platform and coordinate group activities – you’ll be able to send both direct and group messages.

This isn’t a particularly surprising move from a business perspective. Strava uses a “freemium” model, which means it’s essentially free to use, with some features only available via a subscription plan. When the service was founded in California in 2009 by Mark Gainey and Michael Horvath, they wanted Strava to be about the athletes, not just the data. So, in an effort to change the game, the duo decided they wouldn’t sell user information or use targeted advertising. As the world of fitness tracking took off over the next 10 years, Strava was somewhat left behind, but somewhat admirably stayed true to its “free-for-all” roots.

It’s been a bumpy road to monetisation for the platform – there was uproar from the running community in 2020 when the platform announced it was going to start asking users to pay for certain aspects of the app. But the company drove revenue of $220m (£174m) in 2022 (a 31 per cent increase on the previous year) and, despite a bit of a bumpy ride, it’s clear the business model is now working.

This leads me to wonder why on earth, by introducing direct messaging, Strava now feels the need to turn itself into some kind of pseudo-Instagram. As a user myself, one of the attractive features of Strava has always been the privacy element – in fact, I really don’t even think of it as a social media platform.

For me, it’s been a super-useful addition to my running if I’m training for a race – the ability to accurately track my routes and measure improvements over time is great. Do I care about anyone else on there? Not really. That’s because I don’t see it as a place to connect with people, other than runners and friends that I already know in “the real world”. If I want to get in touch with them, I already have their phone number.

So, after more than 10 years of using the platform, the one thing I can categorically say I do not need from it is for people to start sending me messages. The running community is, by and large, a wonderful, safe and welcoming place for women. But how do I know who’s really behind a profile on the app? Is he really a runner? Is he really interested in asking me about the routes I run around my local roads and woodland on my own, sometimes in the dark? How can I tell? Is he really the person he says he is when he asks if he can meet me in the park and join me on a route he’s seen me run on Strava? I don’t know, but I definitely wouldn’t want to risk finding out.

Creating patterns is something that I’m hyperaware of when I run. I try to change up my routes fairly regularly to avoid creating a repetitive pattern that someone could predict. But it’s not easy if you’ve got a limited range of options when you step out the front door. Yes, I could turn off my route tracking on Strava. But why should I? And frankly, you don’t always need an app to track someone.

If, like me, you’ve ever experienced the feeling of being followed, watched or, yes, even jumped out on by someone while you’re running, then you’ll be familiar with the instant adrenaline spike, heart-race surge and general feeling of panic taking over. With that in mind, the added worry that someone with access to all my route data and who might also have been trying to befriend me is utterly terrifying.

Strava messaging is an opt-in function, so the power lies with the user. But with women so used to the functionality of direct messaging on other platforms, I suspect uptake will be fairly high – at least at first while people acquaint themselves with the exciting new functionality.

You might say this is the perfect time for predatory men to decide to join the app – hoping to take advantage of women who aren’t thinking clearly about how, in the wrong hands, it might be used – women who maybe have their guard down. I really hope that isn’t the case. But personally, I’m not planning to find out.