Bumble’s Founder Has an Idea for the Future of Dating. Run—Run Fast. (2024)

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It’s been a rough few weeks for Bumble. Its future might be even worse.

By Nitish Pahwa

Bumble’s Founder Has an Idea for the Future of Dating. Run—Run Fast. (1)

Bumble, the company that distinguished itself from apps like Tinder by creating a “feminist dating app,” hasn’t done too many favors for that brand recently. Yes, there was the ad campaign that appeared to shame women who choose celibacy—which the company wisely retracted this week. There was also the tentative announcement that Bumble may roll back its defining “women make the first move” ethos.

Then there were the strange remarks last week from Bumble founder and #girlboss icon Whitney Wolfe Herd, who informed the audience at Bloomberg’s Tech Summit of “a world where your dating concierge could go and date for you with another dating concierge.” Naturally, these “concierges” would make use of artificial intelligence software, which users could train by “shar[ing] your insecurities” and thus help to “train yourself into a better way of thinking about yourself,” Wolfe Herd claimed.

This, by the way, will be the secret to digging Bumble out of its postpandemic financial hole: “We are going to lean in fast and furiously. We already have. …We are going to win. We will be the way people meet.”

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If such blustery confidence sounds familiar, it might be because this was the exact same pitch Wolfe Herd was making last year, before she stepped down as Bumble’s CEO in November in the wake of its poor financial performance. As she told Bloomberg three months prior to her exit, you could “leverage a chatbot to instill confidence, to help someone feel really secure before they go and talk to a bunch of people.” In other words, consult a dating-coach robot—one who hopefully wouldn’t originate from the Straussian world of toxic pickup artists.

Never mind that we’re already having problems with everyday folks getting way too attached to the myriad chatbot personas popping up across the internet. Never mind that other startups are cashing in on custom online dating personalities like EVA AI. Never mind that Bloomberg itself last year tested various A.I.-dating startups and found them wanting. Never mind that Wolfe Herd’s constant invocations of A.I. have failed to juice Bumble’s stock price, even though that’s been a (temporarily) winning strategy for other tech companies. Folks, the future of “feminist” dating is a weird bot that will just go ahead and scour other bots for you. No transparency or human feedback required, dangit.

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Of course, Wolfe Herd could simply look to how her competitors are doing, even though, like Bumble, they aren’t in so hot a spot themselves. The Match Group, which is the parent company for Tinder and OKCupid, recently found that even its own popular apps are losing their market share and moneymaking potency. A ChatGPT-written press release from February announcing that Match was partnering with OpenAI didn’t exactly help things. So the strategy now is to focus on its relatively younger offering, Hinge, even as Match fights off a user lawsuit claiming that both Hinge and Tinder are exploitative and “predatory” in their subscription costs and user experiences.

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Meanwhile, Grindr, the LGBTQ+ app that laid off half its staff last year, is still hoping to recover its plummeting stock value, perhaps by—wait for it—deploying a chatbot that might just train itself on users’ private messages. (Grindr may want to tread carefully there, as it’s being sued in the United Kingdom for …selling daters’ sensitive personal information, like their HIV status, to third-party advertisers.)

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For tech companies and startups that had their business models walloped by high interest rates, it makes sense to make grandiose proclamations about A.I. that will mollify your investors. It worked for Rent the Runway, whose stock surged last month after an A.I.-bullish earnings call, and it’s working for all the S&P companies whose A.I. interest is causing them to outperform their chart competitors. But such lofty experiments have not similarly buoyed Match and Grindr this year. While Bumble has seen some recovery this year, that turnaround in fortune can be attributed to more quotidian developments (e.g., a refreshed logo, new question-asking features, more payments for subscription services) rather than to robot profiles.

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This in particular is a sphere where zoomers and millennials, faced with social networks totally saturated by auto-generated images and statuses and accounts, are really, really looking for that eventual human connection. Right now, dating apps are falling out of favor with those treasured demographics, not least thanks to the prevalence of catfishing impostors and nonstop deluges of fake dating options. If the user base’s scrutiny and paranoia are so pronounced that even Zayn Malik can’t use Tinder for casual dating without being accused of catfishing, why heighten such distrust by sending in an army of more fake profiles?

There’s a case to be made that careful use of advanced chatbots can indeed be advantageous in assisting with online dating—for brainstorming openers and quips, for practicing basic tenets of conversation, for breaking the ice, for customizing and optimizing your communication. But to outsource the entirety of relationship-building to some bloodless avatar that decides to make all your choices for you won’t avail us in terms of loneliness and dating anxiety. Especially if these are avatars that may also be a notorious judge of character, that carries its own racial and gendered biases, that will never let you know whom you may have missed, and that might just hallucinate something wild to say out of nowhere.

If anything, what may help most of all is the realization that bots can be a means, but not an end—along with the staunch reassurance that there is, indeed, another human receiving your winking emojis.

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Dating and Relationships
  • Apps

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Bumble’s Founder Has an Idea for the Future of Dating. Run—Run Fast. (2024)

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