This morning, Facebook finally launched its long-awaited (or, just as likely, long-dreaded) dating feature. Facebook Dating is now rolling out in the U.S., and at a launch event earlier today the company was very careful in explaining how it works. It’s a separate app and also somehow definitely not a separate app.
You could be forgiven for thinking it’s just another effort to gobble up yet another slice of users’ online social lives, crowding out dating apps like Tinder and Bumble, with “dating” as yet another feature crammed into Facebook’s kitchen-sink approach to market domination. But the company made a relatively solid case that the features are driven by existing behavior: Facebook and Instagram users already employ the platforms as makeshift dating services, so the idea of making this a little easier isn’t all that odd. The problem, as ever, is that Facebook Dating is made by Facebook, a business whose main objective is to collect personal information and monetize it. It’s a seemingly useful service that also acts as a Trojan horse for the company’s existing interests.
Facebook was adamant about how a Dating profile is separate from a user’s main FB profile: Friends aren’t shown as potential matches, and you can preemptively block people. The fact that someone is using Facebook Dating is kept siloed; your Facebook life and your Facebook Dating life are supposedly separate. But under the surface, it seems as if every part of the service is integrated with Facebook’s other properties, which in turn gives Facebook more personal data to potentially target users with ads. New tactics, same old objective.
A Facebook spokesperson said that data collected through the Dating feature would not be used for ad-targeting purposes. On the flip side, as of now, messages are not end-to-end encrypted (though Facebook has publicly stated its intention to implement encryption on all of its messaging services). But even if Facebook harvests no bits of personal information from the use of its dating service, the thing is designed to get people to use the other parts of Facebook that do harvest info.
For instance, moderators of Facebook Groups can now integrate with the Dating section, allowing single people with shared interests to find one another. To paraphrase what Facebook product manager Nathan Sharp told the press in this morning’s presentation, a group admin can essentially create a singles’ chatroom within an existing Facebook Group. So if you want to find like-minded people on Facebook’s Dating app, there’s an incentive to join a Group on the main Facebook.
Similarly, users can import their Instagram photos and Story uploads (Sharp described these as “authentic,” which, sure) to their dating profiles. Again, it’s a case of using Facebook’s ad-supported services to augment one’s dating profile. Even if Facebook doesn’t monetize the information collected through the actual Dating service, the thing is designed to get people to use Facebook’s existing properties as a source of information to put on one’s dating profile.
A marquee feature of Facebook’s new dating service is called Secret Crush: Designate Facebook friends or Instagram followers you have a crush on and, if they add you back, Facebook will notify both parties. To use this feature, obviously you need to have a built-out social graph on Facebook’s non-Dating services.
“With one tap, we’ll suggest photos and information from your Facebook profile, which you can edit or remove,” the press materials state. Again, we see that Facebook Dating is described as a separate experience, but it is actually positioned as a subordinate one. The best way to experience Facebook, by the company’s own account, is for users to first fill their main Facebook profile with personal info — information Facebook can spin into ad revenue — and then import the info to their dating profile.
Even the safety features serve this regard: Facebook said it is screening out users who behave suspiciously as well as newly created accounts. You can’t use just Facebook Dating from the jump; you have to be an established person on its primary network first.
I don’t point all of this out to cast Facebook Dating as some nefarious, clandestine scheme to trick users. For countless people, Facebook and Instagram already function as ad hoc dating apps, and Facebook formalizing that is an obvious decision for the company. But Facebook’s main ad-targeting service has rightfully earned its terrible reputation when it comes to user privacy, and from what I can tell, Dating is built on top of and reliant on that shoddy foundation, not — as Facebook would have you believe — apart from it.
This piece has been updated with comment from Facebook clarifying how Facebook uses data collected through its Dating service and whether messages are encrypted.