What Silicon Valley, Tinder and Trump Have in Common
If there’s one thing about the United States’ current political moment everyone can agree on, it’s how polarized we are. Perhaps nowhere is this polarization more visible than in the world of online dating, where a growing number of singles are indicating whether or not being a supporter of our misogynist-in-chief is their #1 dealbreaker.
There’s often a placating voice entreating both sides to engage in soul-searching, to listen more to one another and search for common ground. The truth, we are often assured, must lie somewhere between the extremes, and perhaps there are situations where there is truth to this platitude.
But when one side champions a sneering, defensive hatred of women, and those on the other side, well, are women, it’s not hard to see why the lines have been drawn where they are. At a certain point, you either support the normalization of misogyny, or you don’t. Either you regard women and femmes as objects, or as people. Either you believe we exist only for your sexual enjoyment — to be judged, consumed, and discarded — or you respect us as equals.
And here’s the most depressing part: No matter where you draw the line, if you’re on a dating app in the first place, chances are you’re engaging with an interface that skews toward objectification, and the reason why is an artifact of that market.
It’s a market I know very well.
In 2013, I conceived the conversation-based dating app, Siren. My single friends said they could only meet people through online dating due to their work schedules and limited social energy. I knew very little about dating apps, and, curious, I investigated a few, was immediately horrified, and shut it all down; all the options that were available at the time felt objectifying and full of harassment.
I witnessed firsthand how the mindless swiping on dating apps led to more alienation — not intimacy — and served market forces more than they dealt with the actual, human problem of loneliness. It was clear that volume and time-on-screen were the ultimate goals, not connecting people meaningfully; it was as if the apps claimed that the best place to meet someone was at a giant stadium where you just sat on your ass and said “Nope, nope, nope, yeah, I’d fuck that…nope, nope, nope, nope…”
As an artist, I envisioned a better, more nuanced ecosystem for people to meet. I understood that Siren’s most important role was as a trustworthy host that fostered a safe, comfortable space for introductions. I visualized how a dinner party could be translated online. I considered how signals were exchanged and realized that starting a dialogue was hard, not only online but also in real life; our mission was to make those easier and unlock a sense of chemistry and closeness within conversation. And Siren became the antithesis of the mindless swipe-to-reject model.
This dynamic is something many people have attributed to the ubiquity of dating apps in the era of smartphones, and not surprisingly, white men have created these reductive platforms. But I saw a beautiful potential in online dating transcending geographical, socio-economic, and time limitations in daily life for real connections. The more I researched the history of online dating, the more I saw a pattern dating back to the earliest uses of computers to find romance. And it was a visionary woman who saw the potential first.
In 1964, an enterprising Englishwoman named Joan Ball founded the world’s first viable commercial dating service. Her company, which went through a series of name changes and mergers before settling on Computer Dating Services Ltd. — or Com-Pat for short — used questionnaires to match singles with potential suitors.
For Ball, using data to match people wasn’t just a solution to a romantic problem, but an economic one as well. In 1960s London, women’s jobs paid little, and women were unable to leave the house at night without a male escort or qualify for mortgages without having a male relative co-sign.Finding a suitable husband was the only way women could open any socioeconomic doors.
As a computer dating and business pioneer, Joan Ball faced down the stigma attached to dating services. She fought tooth and nail to advertise her company in newspapers that mistakenly thought it was just another escort service, laying the groundwork for computer dating as a mainstream cultural phenomenon.
But then something all-too-predictable happened. A major competitor called Dateline emerged, founded by men with a focus on turning a profit by selling the idea of “women on demand” to thirsty bachelors. Ball’s marketing efforts had been so successful at destigmatizing computer dating that Dateline had no trouble placing ads in publications Com-Pat had to fight its way into.
In 1974, Dateline bought Com-Pat, giving it an effective monopoly in the realm of computer dating. Ball could no longer afford to compete with the well-funded competition over the idea she had pioneered and fought for for over a decade. What had begun as a woman’s ingenious solution to a problem faced by women had become a way for men to swoop in and steal profits—and the rest is history. And to add unsurprising salt to the damning wounds, she is often overlooked as the first inventor of computer dating, an acknowledgement given to white men at Harvard.
Last month, I had the opportunity to speak on the telephone with Joan Ball — now 82 years old and still feisty as hell. She was hilarious, charming, and still single — “there isn’t a man that’s been made yet that matches me,” she quipped. Decades after founding the world’s first commercial computer dating service, she is zen about her accomplishments. “All I did was work. I’m a tough old boot, and I don’t let things get me down. I just wanted to run the world, darling.”
There is a “merit-based” myth in the business world that with hard work, the strongest, most innovative ideas will be the ones to dominate the marketplace. But what if you have the most innovative idea and work yourself to the bone, only to watch someone else make your idea profitable, on the groundwork you yourself laid?
What the merit-based narratives fail to acknowledge is that right now, more than 40 years after Joan Ball quit the computer dating business, only 7% of the partners of the world’s top 100 venture capital firms are women, and that of 200 Bay Area startups to receive between $3-$15 million in funding last year, only 8% were helmed by women. Technology is the fastest growing sector of the world economy, and it also happens to be the world’s biggest boys club. Systemic inequality begets more inequality, and so today’s female pioneers persist with little or no support, while young, white males are given ample opportunities to fail until, or if ever, they strike gold.
As a female founder, my experiences in Silicon Valley have been roughly as pleasant as my test experiences on Tinder. Nearly every white male VC-type I’ve explained the photo visibility control feature on Siren to has said something to the effect of, “Women may be interested in personality, but for me, it’s all about whether I think a woman is hot.” When I explained our privacy options — which allow members to blur their photos until a mutual connection is established — they’d say, “I’ll betcha Siren women don’t want anyone to see them because they’re are all fat and ugly.” One guy said he’d be insulted — horrified and insulted — if a woman whose photo he didn’t find attractive had the gall to try to start a friendly conversation with him.
And yet, despite the inability of the men who control the money to imagine a world beyond their own boners, our member base continues to grow. The bitter man-babies who think feminists are all fat and ugly have weeded themselves out, resulting in a community where mutual respect and inspiring conversation is the norm. The men on Siren have written “I absolutely love your app idea and I think it has a ton of potential. Women definitely need more power not less in the dating world!” and “Tinder doesn’t give me a chance to show off my best assets, and I like the idea of wit and intellect helping me get in the door.”
One of our favorite things to do as a team is read emails from people who discovered the love of their life on Siren. (Sometimes we even get wedding photos!) We know the work we’re doing is important; it’s just a matter of how long we’ll be able to afford to do it without the white skin and casually rolled up button-up shirts that make founders so attractive to venture capitalists.
What does all of this have to do with our current political climate? Quite a bit, actually. Technology is a microcosm for the rest of our society. The dynamic that makes it possible for a white man with zero political experience to defeat a woman who is one of the most experienced candidates in history is the same dynamic that judges the strength of all ideas on their ability to impress people who are only interested in people who look and think like them. It is the same culture that only values women as objects, that only values everyone by how much profit we’re able to turn for shareholders.
Changing our culture isn’t as easy as getting men to wake up to the realities of objectifying women. Entire narratives about what constitutes “fairness,” and what we actually mean when we believe our successes to be “merit-based,” must also be examined, and ultimately undermined. Until we realize that not only has the game been rigged this whole time, the actual playing field was sown with stolen labor, we will be trapped in an endless mess of spammy technology that values profits above problem-solving.
Changing the culture means changing the conversation. Only then will we be able to turn our time, attention, and resources toward building the technology we truly want for tomorrow, today.
Online dating might seem like a trivial starting point for this conversation, but we believe that in the grand scheme of things, truly finding connections with like-minded people — your people, the ones you want to share your life with — is every bit as revolutionary an idea as it was when Joan Ball pioneered it.
Reprinted from The Establishment