You’d love to meet me on Tinder. Here’s why you won’t.

By Chloe Angyal
July 9, 2014

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The people behind the smartphone apps Snapchat and Tinder have the power to reshape how we interact with our romantic and sexual partners, and how we seek and have sex itself.

That’s an enormous responsibility — one that requires maturity, good judgment and a healthy respect for gender equality. The problem is, a few of the people behind Snapchat and Tinder seem to have none of the above.

When news broke last week that a former vice president of Tinder filed a sexual harassment suit against the mobile dating app company, the most salacious parts of the complaint quickly spread around the Internet. Whitney Wolfe alleges that her former colleague Justin Mateen, chief marketing officer of the hugely popular app, called her a “whore” (among other slurs) and deliberately concealed Wolfe’s role in founding the company, in part because it would look too “slutty” for a woman to have contributed to the development of a dating and casual sex app. Eventually, Wolfe claims, Mateen and chief executive officer Sean Rad bullied her into resigning from Tinder.

Wolfe also named IAC/Interactive Corp, Tinder’s majority investor, in the suit. An IAC representative has described the accusations as “unfounded.” He also said that the company is conducting an internal investigation over the charges, and has suspended Mateen as a result of its finding that he did send private, inappropriate messages to Wolfe. Mateen did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment.

Mateen is not the first Silicon Valley startup wunderkind to be busted for mistreating members of the opposite sex. In May, Valleywag published a series of leaked emails from Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel. As a Stanford undergrad, Spiegel joked with his fellow Kappa Sigma brothers about how much alcohol it would take to get sorority girls drunk enough to have sex with them, and suggested that the best way to congratulate themselves for throwing a great party was to “have some girl put your large Kappa Sigma dick down her throat.” Spiegel may now wish he had Snapchatted those messages to his frat brothers, instead of emailing them. Written five years ago, they don’t exactly instill confidence in his maturity, nor do they suggest much respect for the millions of women who use his app. In May Spiegel issued a public apology for writing the emails and said that he is “mortified and embarrassed” that they were made public.

One of Wolfe’s tasks at Tinder was to get young, straight women on board, and to convince them that this instant hookup app was appealing. This isn’t a novel idea; it’s the digital equivalent of ladies’ night at the bar. If you build it and stock it with attractive women, the men will come. After reading Wolfe’s suit against her male co-founders, though, and after reading Spiegel’s emails, it should be clear that these are not the men we want at the helm of our bold new digital dating enterprise. These are not the men — the very young men — we need in charge of determining how old prejudices and problems are translated into the digital, handheld age.

The speed with which Tinder allows users to reject people — swipe left — or ”like” them — tap a green heart — is efficient, but it’s also impersonal. Objectifying people on Tinder isn’t inevitable, but it’s certainly easier than on dating websites like OkCupid or — heaven forefend — in real life. And the ephemeral nature of Snapchat — of having no record of your own words, and knowing that other people are unlikely to have a record of them either — can leave one feeling reckless and unaccountable. Reckless unaccountability and sex are rarely a good combination.

We know from observing other recent dating innovations, like OkCupid, that for all its transformative power, digital technology tends to merely reproduce pre-existing power dynamics and hierarchies. Black women find it harder to get men to respond to them on OkCupid, just as they face discrimination and warped beauty standards offline. Women across the board are subject to harassing and sexually aggressive messages in online dating spaces, just as they are in the flesh. In this sense, the supposedly disruptive world of Silicon Valley is not, as Jill Lepore recently argued in the New Yorker, all that disruptive.

The people who get funding, and thereby the chance to change our world, are the same people who have been getting funding all along: white, tech-savvy men. Only this time, they’re younger — because Silicon Valley fetishizes youth — and it’s more likely that their youthful indiscretions, like emailing fraternity brothers and urging them to get women so drunk as to make sexual consent impossible, are only a few years behind them. Because these entrepreneurs are younger, they’ve had fewer years to mature and dispense with any sexist attitudes that they may have had as undergrads.

That Silicon Valley has a gender problem is hardly news. When Google released its workplace diversity numbers in May, the figures were grim compared to the workforce in general, with women representing only 30 percent of employees overall, and just 17 percent of tech jobs at the company. But with many of our dating lives being transformed by apps developed by male entrepreneurs in their 20s, the gender problem is magnified, transformed into something truly ugly and deeply problematic — and it deserves closer attention than it now receives.

I’m precisely the kind of woman Tinder wants on board: young, single, urban, with a good profile picture. But if these are the guys who built it, I’d rather leave.

PHOTO: Tinder screenshots courtesy of the company.  REUTERS/Tinder

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