Woman on dating app

Woman on dating app

Online dating services — like Tinder and OkCupid — are under fire for purported racial bias. But is the problem with the apps, or with the people who use them?

From web-based services to mobile apps, online dating has done quite a lot of evolving over the past few years. The phenomenon was regarded with plenty of suspicion in its early days, with skeptics insisting that the internet was too cold and impersonal a medium to facilitate real relationships. As usership of these services grew, however, acceptance grew with it — today, online dating is arguably just as mainstream a setting for romance as bars and clubs.

But not everything about the dating platforms we use today is a cause for celebration. Recently, critics have spoken out about what many of us already suspected: dating apps like Tinder and Hinge have a race problem.

Matching Bias

Dating apps have undoubtedly changed the way people form relationships. Instead of meeting someone “organically” — that is to say, through friends or through social interaction — dating apps allow users to browse through a range of potential partners with no apparent connection to you. Without any past interactions that might indicate personal chemistry, all that users have to go on are photos and short biographies. In short, appearances become the determining factor in every potential match.

Is it shallow to base romantic decisions purely on looks? Absolutely. But it isn’t really a new phenomenon: researchers from Northwestern University and Illinois State University found that attractiveness is the most important factor at the beginning of most relationships, according to the New York Times.

Still, just because a phenomenon is normal doesn’t mean it doesn’t have unintended consequences. Case in point: what happens when people only find individuals within their own race attractive?

Race Issue

This noted problem comes more from deep-rooted stereotypes than from personal preference, according to an article written for Essence. “There is kind of a systemic racial bias pretty much in every dating site I’ve ever looked at,” explains Christian Rudder, co-founder of OKCupid and author of the dating statistics book Dataclysm. “We found that 82% of non-black men have some bias against black women… And Asian men get the fewest messages and the worst ratings of any group of guys.”

Unfortunately, it seems that the more popular the dating app, the more racially homogeneous it will be. Luckily, there are new apps being developed to address the issue.

Niche Dating Apps

There are dating apps for farmers (Farmers Only), tall people (Tall Friends), even beard enthusiasts (Bristlr). It is no surprise, then, that dating apps are being developed with racial preference in mind.

Dating apps like SoulSwipe, MiCrush, and Asian Date, cater to black, Latino, and Asian users, respectively. Their goal is to market themselves with race in mind, giving people of color an opportunity to develop the same meaningful relationships that white users experience on larger dating apps in the United States.

Sex educator Michelle Hope explains the growing popularity behind race-specific dating apps in an article for Complex: “In general, [race-specific] dating apps add a number of available options–especially for women. There’s this idea that people want to be connected to who they have common interests with, so it becomes easier to date.”

“[They provide] validation that you’re attractive, and that someone liked you enough to swipe right,” she added. “In some ways, they provide that instant gratification that some people are looking for.”

Inclusionary or Exclusionary?

So are dating apps racist? Sadly, it appears that most dating apps are inherently exclusionary, though often through no fault of their own.

Christian Rudder addresses the question in a blog post for OkCupid: “In short, ‘beautiful people’ receive a lot of the same built-in benefits in our society that white people do… I think that’s no coincidence. Beauty is a cultural idea as much as a physical one, and the standard is of course set by the dominant culture. I believe that’s what you see in the data here.”

The demand for dating apps that address this disturbing problem is also a big opportunity for budding entrepreneurs. Luckily, it doesn’t take a coding expert to make an app anymore: services like Infinite Monkeys make it easy and affordable to create your own app. For as little as $1 a month, you could be delivering an ad-free dating app to users all over the world — and turning a big profit in the process.

(Michael Coughlan/flickr)