Dating apps should not allow people to filter search results by race. That’s the stark conclusion by researchers at Cornell University in New York.
They have taken a long, hard look at the way dating apps work, and the racial preferences people sometimes express. Several dating apps allow people to filter search results based in race.
However, the researchers say this can result in those seeking connections missing out on potential partners. It could also lead to users fetishizing particular groups.
The results have been published in the paper: Debiasing Desire: Addressing Bias & Discrimination on Intimate Platforms.
More than 60% of couples meet online
The paper says around 15% of Americans have used dating apps (what it calls ‘initimate platforms’). This figure is even higher among LGBTI populations. In the late 00s, around 60% of same-sex couples reported meeting online.
The researchers note that, ‘While intimate platforms can provide new social opportunities, bias and discrimination may limit the degree to which such opportunities are realized in practice.’
‘Serendipity is lost when people are able to filter other people out,’ says lead author Jevan Hutson to the Cornell Chronicle.
‘Dating platforms have the opportunity to disrupt particular social structures, but you lose those benefits when you have design features that allow you to remove people who are different than you.’
The research explores previous research into the impact of dating apps. It then looks more deeply at three design strategies used by dating apps popular in the US.
Among the gay dating apps it praises is DaddyHunt in its attitude towards tackling HIV stigma.
‘DaddyHunt … informs its users of the stigma and alienation experienced by users afflicted by HIV, and offers users the opportunity to indicate whether they are “open to dating someone of any [HIV] status”. It then gives users the option to sign a “Live Stigma-Free” pledge, and if they choose to do so, adds a visible indicator of this pledge to users’ profiles.
‘By encouraging education and voluntary affirmation of this pledge, DaddyHunt prompts users to reflect on their own preferences. Instead of simply asking users for their serostatus or that of their preferred partners, the pledge signals to users that understanding and openness are important platform norms.
‘Because the pledge is entirely voluntary, DaddyHunt can encourage a more inclusive approach to HIV without coercion.’
In other words, the app doesn’t ask people to state their HIV status but to reflect on whether they open to dating someone regardless of status, and presenting that as the norm.
The authors say these simple designs measures can have a big impact on the way marginalized or discriminated groups are treated online.
For example, it further notes gay dating app Hornet ‘bars its users from including any language referring to race or racial preferences in their profiles or bios.’
This is a policy increasingly being taken up by gay dating apps. Grindr launched its Kindr initiative last month. This includes acting to prohibit people stating comments such as ‘No Asians, no femmes, no fats’ on their profiles.
Scruff also recently announced that it was no longer compulsory for users to state their race when creating a profile.
‘Our private lives have impacts on larger socioeconomic patterns’
‘It’s really an unprecedented time for dating and meeting online,’ says Hutson. ‘More people are using these apps, and they’re critical infrastructures that don’t get a lot of attention when it comes to bias and discrimination.
‘Intimacy is very private, and rightly so, but our private lives have impacts on larger socioeconomic patterns that are systemic.’
The researchers say users who get messages from people of other races are more likely to engage in interracial exchanges than they would have otherwise. In this way, interacting online can offer the potential to meet a diverse range of people – far more than if you go to a bar.
However, although laws regarding discrimination apply to physical spaces, they don’t apply to online apps. The authors suggest that this is leading to displays of sexual racism.
Apps need to be aware of their power
The paper concludes by asking dating apps and their designers to be more aware of the power they have in reinforcing or challenging bias.
‘Given that these platforms are becoming increasingly aware of the impact they have on racial discrimination, we think it’s not a big stretch for them to take a more justice-oriented approach in their own design,‘ co-author Jessie Taft said.
‘We’re trying to raise awareness that this is something designers, and people in general, should be thinking more about.’