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Three flawed assumptions the Daily Beast made about dating apps

August 16, 2016
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Image from @Cernovich

Last week, the Daily Beast published an article by one of its editors who sought to report about how dating apps were facilitating sexual encounters in Rio’s Olympic Village. Instead, his story focused mainly on athletes using Grindr, an app for men seeking men, and included enough personal information about individuals to identify and out them. After the article was criticized as dangerous and unethical across media outlets and social media, the Daily Beast replaced it with an apology. However, decisions to publish articles like this are made based on assumptions about who uses dating apps and how people share information on them. These assumptions are visible not only in how journalists act but also in the approaches that researchers and app companies take when it comes to users’ personal data. Ethical breeches like the one made by the Daily Beast will continue unless we address the following three (erroneous) assumptions:

Assumption 1. Data on dating apps is shareable like a tweet or a Facebook post

 Since dating apps are a hybrid between dating websites of the past and today’s social media, there is an assumption that the information users generate on dating apps should be shared. Zizi Papacharissi and Paige Gibson[1] have written about ‘shareability’ as the built-in way that social network sites encourage sharing and discourage withholding information. This is evident within platforms like Facebook and Twitter, through ‘share’ and ‘retweet’ buttons, as well as across the web as social media posts are formatted to be easily embedded in news articles and blog posts.

Dating apps provide many spaces for generating content, such as user profiles, and some app architectures are increasingly including features geared toward shareability. Tinder, for example, provides users with the option of creating a ‘web profile’ with a distinct URL that anyone can view without even logging into the app. While users determine whether or not to share their web profiles, Tinder also recently experimented with a “share” button allowing users to send a link to another person’s profile by text message or email. This creates a platform-supported means of sharing profiles to individuals who may never have encountered them otherwise.

The problem with dating apps adopting social media’s tendency toward sharing is that dating environments construct particular spaces for the exchange of intimate information. Dating websites have always required a login and password to access their services. Dating apps are no different in this sense – regardless of whether users login through Facebook authentication or create a new account, dating apps require users to be members. This creates a shared understanding of the boundaries of the app and the information shared within it.  Everyone is implicated in the same situation: on a dating app, potentially looking for sexual or romantic encounters. A similar boundary exists for me when I go to the gay bar; everyone I encounter is also in the same space so the information of my whereabouts is equally as implicating for them. However, a user hitting ‘share’ on someone’s Tinder profile and sending it to a colleague, family member, or acquaintance removes that information from the boundaries within which it was consensually provided. A journalist joining a dating app to siphon users’ information for a racy article flat out ignores these boundaries.

Assumption 2. Personal information on dating apps is readily available and therefore can be publicized

 When the Daily Beast’s editor logged into Grindr and saw a grid full of Olympic athletes’ profiles, he likely assumed that if this information was available with a few taps of his screen then it could also be publicized without a problem. Many arguments about data ethics get stuck debating whether information shared on social media and apps is public or private. In actuality, users place their information in a particular context with a specific audience in mind. The violation of privacy occurs when another party re-contextualizes this information by placing it in front of a different audience.

Although scholars have pointed out that re-contextualization of personal information is a violation of privacy, this remains a common occurrence even across academia. We were reminded of this last May when 70,000 OkCupid users’ data was released without permission by researchers in Denmark. Annette Markham’s post on the SMC blog pointed out that “the expectation of privacy about one’s profile information comes into play when certain information is registered and becomes meaningful for others.” This builds on Helen Nissenbaum’s[2] notion of “privacy in context” meaning that people assume the information they share online will be seen by others in a specific context. Despite the growing body of research confirming that this is exactly how users view and manage their personal information, I have come across many instances where researchers have re-published screenshots of user profiles from dating apps without permission. These screenshots are featured in presentations, blog posts, and theses with identifying details that violate individuals’ privacy by re-contextualizing their personal information for an audience outside the app. As an academic community, we need to identify this as an unethical practice that is potentially damaging to research subjects.

Dating app companies also perpetuate the assumption that user information can be shared across contexts through their design choices. Recently, Tinder launched a new feature in the US called Tinder Social, which allows users to join with friends and swipe on others to arrange group hangouts. Since users team up with their Facebook friends, activating this feature lets you see everyone else on your Facebook account who is also on Tinder with this feature turned on. While Tinder Social requires users to ‘unlock’ its functionality from their Settings screen, its test version in Australia automatically opted users in. When Australian users updated their app, this collapsed a boundary between the two platforms that previously kept the range of family, friends, and acquaintances accumulated on Facebook far, far away from users’ dating lives. While Tinder seems to have learned from the public outcry about this privacy violation, the company’s choice to overlap Facebook and Tinder audiences disregards how important solid boundaries between social contexts can be for certain users.

 Assumption 3. Sexuality is no big deal these days

 At the crux of the Daily Beast article was the assumption that it was okay to share potentially identifying details about people’s sexuality. As others have pointed out, just because same-sex marriage and other rights have been won by lesbian, bisexual, gay, trans, and queer (LGBTQ) people in some countries, many cultures, religions, and political and social groups remain extremely homophobic. Re-contextualization of intimate and sexual details shared within the boundaries of a dating app not only constitutes a violation of privacy, it could expose people to discrimination, abuse, and violence.

In my research with LGBTQ young people, I’ve learned that a lot of them are very skilled at placing information about their sexuality where they want it to be seen and keeping it absent from spaces where it may cause them harm. For my master’s thesis, I interviewed university students about their choices of whether or not to come out on Facebook. Many of them were out to a certain degree, posting about pro-LGBTQ political views and displaying their relationships in ways that resonated with friendly audiences but eluded potentially homophobic audiences like coworkers or older adults.

In my PhD, I’ve focused on how same-sex attracted women manage their self-representations across social media. Their practices are not clear-cut since different social media spaces mean different things to users. One interviewee talked about posting selfies with her partner to Facebook for friends and family but not to Instagram where she’s trying to build a network of work and church-related acquaintances. Another woman spoke about cross-posting Vines to friendly LGBTQ audiences on Tumblr but keeping them off of Instagram and Facebook where her acquaintances were likely to pick fights over political issues. Many women talked about frequently receiving negative, discriminatory, and even threatening homophobic messages despite these strategies, highlighting just how important it was for them to be able to curate their self-representations. This once again defies the tendency to designate some sites or pieces of information as ‘public’ and others as ‘private.’ We need to follow users’ lead by respecting the context in which they’ve placed personal information based on their informed judgments about audiences.

Journalists, researchers, and app companies frequently make decisions based on assumptions about dating apps. They assume that since the apps structurally resemble other social media then it’s permissible to carry out similar practices tending toward sharing user-generated information. This goes hand-in-hand with the assumption that if user data is readily available, it can be re-contextualized for other purposes. On dating apps, this assumes (at best) that user data about sexuality will be received neutrally across contexts and at its worst, this data is used without regard for the harm it may cause. There is ample evidence that none of these assumptions hold true when we look at how people create bounded spaces for exchanging intimate information, how users manage their personal information in particular contexts, and how LGBTQ people deal with enduring homophobia and discrimination. While the Daily Beast should not have re-contextualized dating app users’ identifying information in its article, this instance provides an opportunity to dispel these assumptions and change how we design, research, and report about dating apps in order to treat users’ information more ethically.

 

 [1] Papacharissi, Z., & Gibson, P. L. (2011). Fifteen minutes of privacy: Privacy, sociality and publicity on social network sites. In S. Trepte & L. Reinecke (Eds.), Privacy Online (pp. 75–89). Berlin: Springer.

[2] Nissenbaum, H. (2009). Privacy in context: Technology, policy, and the integrity of social life. Stanford, CA: Standford University Press.

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