“We have a responsibility to do more, not just to connect the world but to bring the world closer together.”
So spoke Mark Zuckerberg in June 2017, announcing Facebook’s new mission statement.
Almost a year later, in the midst of an ongoing scandal about privacy and data, you’d be forgiven for questioning whether the social media giant had its priorities right. It might have been a smarter idea to focus on its responsibility to be ethical and transparent with the way it utilises users’ data.
Now, as the firm at the heart of the data scandal (Cambridge Analytica) closes down and Zuckerberg faces renewed summons to appear before MPs to explain himself, Facebook is struggling to change the narrative. And what better way to get back to its original purpose of “connecting the world” than by launching a dating service?
The question is, will it work? And to answer this, let’s get a few things straight about what was announced at the F8 conference on Tuesday.
Despite the headlines it has sparked, this is not about killing off popular mobile apps like Tinder and Bumble, where users have little more than a few photos and an approximate location to go on. The Facebook mock-up on display this week may have looked similar, dominated by photos users can swipe through, but Zuckerberg’s site has an immense, built-in advantage when it comes to the dating game that no other site can match: data.
Facebook already knows exactly who its 200m single users are – because we gave it that information. It’s been tracking things we “like”, from fashion brands to the royal family to Jeremy Corbyn. It knows where we went to university, who we’re friends with, and what they like. As the Cambridge Analytica revelations show, it has the information to make a pretty good guess about our political affiliations, values, and general worldview.
That kind of data would be wasted on a hookup app like Tinder. But it’s priceless for rivalling established dating sites like Match.com and OkCupid, whose complex questionnaires promise to find users life partners.
And who is most likely to be looking for life partners? Not Generation Z (currently aged around 14-23) who have been fleeing Facebook in their droves in favour of newer, cooler social networks. It is no coincidence that Tuesday’s prototype profile was aged 36, or that Zuckerberg promised that “this is going to be for building real, long-term relationships”.
Facebook is no longer a young person’s game. Over half of users are over 35, and its fastest growing demographic is aged 55–64. As Sheela Mackintosh Stewart, a family lawyer and relationship consultant, rather depressingly points out: “At midlife, fewer opportunities exist to meet suitable partners, which makes it challenging. If Facebook is offering a platform that caters to older individuals looking for love, it can only be a positive move.”
The irony is that, in trying to go back to its social roots, the site will require and obtain yet more intimate data.
If users were outraged at having their general information shared with a political consultancy, how are they going to feel about submitting intimate details to what is still in essence a marketing platform? Factor in the work Facebook is doing on facial recognition and artificial intelligence, and you have a shady power nexus that no internet-savvy user would touch, no matter the promises of finding a soulmate.
My instinct is that Facebook Dating will be something of a success, entirely down to the sheer scale of the site. With 2bn users, it has the network advantage to take on the major players – it is no surprise that Match Group’s stock price dropped over 22 per cent after the news. And anyone committed to finding love online will be resigned to handing over a certain amount of personal information, whether to OkCupid, or Guardian Soulmates.
But if Facebook wanted to signal that it understands users’ privacy concerns and is determined to change, as Zuckerberg has promised, using its influence to insert itself into the most intimate of life choices seems exactly the wrong way to go about it.
Far from bringing the world closer together, this is likely to drive away anyone who sees the site for what it is: a marketing money tree, whose core mission is to obtain any data, at any cost.
Read more: Is Facebook too powerful?