Facebook Dating could have an unfair advantage over its competitors
ThevergeA defining feature of Facebook’s approach to product development is its ruthlessness, which often manifests as a kind of shamelessness. If good taste ever dictates that Facebook stay out of a product, history shows that it’s likely to wade right in. There are, for example, all the times that the company copied Snapchat. Or there was the development of the always-listening Portal video phone, which was delayed by the onset of one privacy scandal and still managed to launch during another one.
Today, with federal agencies investigating whether the company’s tight integration between its family of products represents anti-competitive behavior, Facebook released in the United States a new service that moves to further knit them all together. It’s called Facebook Dating, and I wrote about it at The Verge:
Nearly a year after it began testing in Colombia, Facebook Dating is now available in the United States. The product, which is available to users 18 and older, will appear as a new tab within the Facebook mobile app. People who opt in to Dating can create a profile that’s separate from their main Facebook profile with one tap and meet potential romantic partners among their friends of friends — or, if that makes you uncomfortable, completely outside of your existing friend network.
Facebook says it will suggest matches for you based on preferences you express when you create your profile, along with your interests and Facebook activity. The app, which borrows many design elements from the dating app Hinge, allows you to send a “like” and a corresponding message to any profile you encounter on the service.
The most notable thing about Facebook Dating from a regulatory point of view is likely the way it takes advantage of at least five pillars of the company. (This doesn’t always work, as the New York Times reported today in a new investigation into Facebook romance scams.) It uses your Facebook friend graph and profile to find you matches and verify the authenticity of your account. It lets you find romantic partners among people who are in the same Facebook groups, or attending the same Facebook events, that you are. It encourages you coordinate your plans on Messenger.
And finally, with the US launch, Facebook Dating has added a close integration with Instagram. You can add a module of your recent Instagram photos to your dating profile, and eventually, you’ll be able to post Instagram stories there as well.
Ever since we learned in January that Facebook intends to unify its messaging products under a single banner, it has been clear that the company has been in a race against time. Its mission is to dissolve every possible boundary between WhatsApp, Instagram, and the flagship app, so that if regulators try to force them to spin those out into separate companies, they can complain that it’s simply impossible. If Facebook succeeds, there will be no real “Instagram” or “WhatsApp” to speak of — there will simply be Facebook, available in a handful of different flavors.
In any case, regulation was not the main theme in coverage of Facebook dating today. Instead the theme was, as you might expect, privacy. The company put up a separate blog post intended to address privacy concerns about Dating, but not everyone was satisfied. (Brian Menegus in Gizmodo: “Oh god. Oh no. Please do not do this.”)
And some questions about Dating went unanswered. Here’s Brian Feldman in New York:
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.
At the time of this article’s publication, Facebook had not responded to a few simple yes-or-no questions. It’s not clear whether Facebook will use data gathered through the dating service for ad targeting. It’s also not clear whether messages sent between Dating users are 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.
On balance, I suppose the privacy concerns about Facebook Dating are better grounded than concerns over competition. Dating apps are one of the most competitive spaces in the tech industry, with multiple highly popular new networks popping up each year. (In the end almost all of them are bought by Match Group, which owns Match.com, Tinder, and OKCupid, among many others.)
But then — social networking seemed pretty competitive when Facebook bought Instagram and WhatsApp, too. Facebook Dating is now available in 20 countries, and can bootstrap its own growth by promoting itself in one of the most popular apps in the world — while further enmeshing itself with Instagram. (Dating apps like Tinder and Hinge let you integrate with Instagram as well — but will that always be the case? Will Instagram stories come to them, too?)
And for the moment, it’s ad-free and doesn’t require in-app purchases to use any of its features. That’s a luxury that smaller products simply can’t afford.
As a product, Facebook Dating strikes me as well designed and likely quite useful. (It has already produced marriages in some of the countries where it operates, product manager Nathan Sharp told me.) But as a story about competition, it’s another area where Facebook’s many strengths could crowd out competitors over time. If I were mounting an antitrust investigation against the company, it’s a product I’d take a very close look at.