The woman revolutionising online dating

Whitney Wolfe is changing the way we date with her new app - you can even find friends on it. Claire Cohen reports

Online dating is as easy as swiping right or left. Photo / iStock
Online dating is as easy as swiping right or left. Photo / iStock

Online dating once lurked in the shadows. Couples who connected over the internet would laugh nervously and mutter something about "meeting in a bar". No longer. Today, it accounts for around one in every five new relationships and one in six marriages. Most people now know someone who met their partner online - and the stigma has gone. Instead of feeling shame, we feel happy for them.

Except, once in a while, a story appears that pulls us up short. Take the tale of UK Culture Secretary John Whittingdale who, this week, confessed to discovering that his girlfriend of six months - who he says he met on a dating site - was a dominatrix (at which point he unchivalrously dumped her, possibly before she got there first).

Some have expressed disbelief that the 56-year-old Conservative MP could have dated someone for so long without full knowledge of her occupation. Others believe he was duped and have pointed out the vulnerability of many people - especially older generations - online.

But, whatever you make of it, his experience is a reminder that internet dating still can be a murky world, where many are feeling their way.

One person who's all too aware of the potential pitfalls is Whitney Wolfe. The 26-year-old Texan co-founded mobile dating giant Tinder, which now boasts 50 million users and, many believe, is partly responsible for a casual "hook-up" sex culture that's now endemic.

She departed the app in April 2014 after filing a sexual discrimination lawsuit, claiming she was forced to put up with sexist abuse and "misogynistic, frat-like" behaviour (the case was settled out of court for a reputed $1 million).

But far from retreating from the online dating industry, Wolfe instead set out to reinvent it.

After relentless research and hours of focus groups, she found users were increasingly perturbed by the issue of abuse - both misogyny online and actual abuse of dating services. Determined to improve women's experiences online, she launched Bumble - the first dating app that lets women call the shots.

It works much like Tinder (swipe right on a picture if you're interested, left if you're not) but once a match has been established between two people, only the woman can initiate conversation. Part of what makes it such an attractive proposition is Wolfe herself. Her "girl power" vibe, enthusiasm and work ethic have attracted a glossy team of accomplished women, as well as users in their droves. Since its launch at the end of 2014, Bumble has attracted 3.5 million of them - and is currently accumulating new users at a rate of 25,000 a day.

Wolfe believes this success is down to online accountability. The idea for Bumble came from her desire to create a safe space for people - women in particular - to communicate online. Romance was what she knew best and so the concept evolved into a dating app - one that she insists has "kindness" at its heart.

"There's no online accountability in digital anything. Zero," she tells me when we meet at a hotel in London's Covent Garden.

"That's where my idea for Bumble came from - I wanted to start a network that encouraged positive online behaviour versus bullying, exclusion and all that nasty stuff - I know, I've lived through it."

Wolfe is referring to the tidal wave of trolling that occurred after she left Tinder. She was, she tells me, called "the ugliest, meanest, darkest things I've ever read on a public messaging service. I cried for two days.

"The scary part is that it's human behaviour. I think it was Jeff Bezos [the Amazon founder] who said people have an amazing way of losing a respect gene when they're hiding behind a username. And I think as we put the next generation on the phone, we'd better find a way to solve that - or we're in deep trouble."

Little wonder, then, that safeguarding users is her top priority. "I'm kind of crazy about that stuff," she says.

She's horrified when I tell her about serial rapist Jason Lawrance who was recently jailed for life after raping or assaulting seven women he met through the UK's biggest lonely hearts site, Match.com.

"Safety is something you should never have to pay for," she says. "If you're abusive, or not who you say you are on Bumble, you're gone. We have a zero-tolerance policy."

More than nine million people in Britain have used a dating site or app - and more than 80 per cent of those have admitted to lying on their profile; from tiny fibs about age or weight to those who create new identities - a phenomenon so well-documented it has a name: catfishing.

On Bumble, as with Tinder, you can't sign up unless you have a Facebook account and a minimum number of online friends (75). It means the chances of meeting someone with a fake profile are significantly reduced. Wolfe is also plotting the introduction of a function whereby a man can only message a woman a finite number of times before the app raises a red flag, asking her whether she's being harassed and - if necessary - muting him.

"This is pretty much what we do all day," quips Wolfe, "sit around discussing how to make women's lives better."

As Wolfe's philosophy is to connect people in a positive way, it may come as no surprise that the dating app has now introduced a new feature: Bumble BFF (best friends forever).

This new setting allows users to pinpoint prospective friends in their local area and meet up - for drinks, cinema trips or yoga classes.

What is maybe more surprising, however, is just how successful this feature has been.

Since its launch last month it has been used the most in the US, UK, France, Australia and Brazil - with two million swipes in the first week and 15 million in the first month.

Are we now in such an isolated state that we are having to go online to find friends as well as dates?

Wolfe expected this. As far as she's concerned, this latest "friend" feature is just meeting demand. According to the experts, 18-24-year-olds are four times as likely to feel lonely "most of the time" as those aged over 70. And, in 2014, Britain was named as the loneliness capital of Europe.

Ironically, perhaps, Wolfe lays the blame for this disconnectedness with social media.

"It's an epidemic," she tells me. "Instead of socialising and having proper conversations, we're staring at pictures of models in bikinis and wondering how they look like that. It's like self-loathing."

Her passionate belief is, however, that the digital world does have a role in bring us face-to-face again and all without the murky anonymity of the internet.

"We are becoming so fickle and self-involved. Always looking for the next best thing - especially when it comes to people. We spend hours buried in our phones trying to keep up with the social lives of people we may not even know. Envy and the fear of missing out have taken over.

"Yet we are all still longing for human connection. We want that real-life experience, someone to spend time with - and we now want this beyond romance. I want to help people find that again and feel safe while they do it."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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