With some of the latest technology in the world at its disposal and 1.45 billion daily users, not to mention the mountain of cash and army of product design and marketing experts, news that Facebook will launch a specialist online dating product will have Tinder and other online dating services worried. It’s a case of full circle for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg who first dipped his toe into social media through his 2003 ‘FaceMash’ project while a student at Harvard.
Zuckerberg pulled students’ profile pictures from Harvard’s website, without permission, with users ranking them as ‘hot or not’ in a way reminiscent of Tinder. FaceMash went viral on the Harvard campus. Some parallels may be drawn from the fact the FaceMash project also ended in Zuckerberg being forced into an apology for “violating people’s privacy”.
However, at the time of FaceMash, he didn’t have one of the biggest companies in the world behind him and a multi-million crack legal team. As a result, the outrage provoked by Zuckerberg’s unauthorised use of personal data spelled the end of FaceMash’s short-lived viral explosion. The chances are this time things will turn out differently and Zuckerberg and Facebook may well become the world’s most prolific Cupid.
In Tuesday’s announcement on the service, Zuckerberg intimated that while Tinder’s not inconsiderable success may have been founded on a similar ‘hot or not’ principle to his student FaceMash project, Facebook’s dating service will seek to move beyond the superficial. The vision is to facilitate the building of long-term relationships based on mutual interests and friends and ‘not just about hook up’. That choice of phrase has been interpreted as a thinly veiled dig at Tinder and the announcement sent the share price of Match, which owns both the Match.com dating site and Tinder into a downward spiral.
The volume of personal data and sophistication of the latest machine learning and AI technology that has seen Facebook develop into such an effective marketing platform should mean any Facebook dating platform will be fearsome competition. Tinder also heavily relies on interaction with Facebook. Users often log in to their accounts via their Facebook login and most commonly create their profiles by importing photos and personal information from their Facebook account. That access to Facebook profiles could be under threat with the company set to launch a direct competitor.
There will inevitably be questions raised about whether the new service will increase the concerns many users already have about the amount of personal data Facebook has on them and how secure that is, particularly in the wake of the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal. During yesterday’s announcement Zuckerberg was at pains to emphasise that the new tool was being ‘built from the ground up with privacy and safety in mind’.
However, despite the #deleteFacebook movement that the recent scandal birthed, the majority of users seem more inclined to grumble and move on rather than the alternative of severing themselves from a social media that has become an integral part of contemporary life for many. The scale of the market penetration Facebook has is likely to mean it becomes the dominant player in online data if the tool is even reasonably well developed. And with the resources Facebook has at its disposal, it would be a major surprise if it isn’t. The company is also acutely aware that it has been losing ground to other social media when it comes to capturing the most recent waves of young users. Moving into dating will be seen as a way to re-engage with younger users.