February 2018

How Whitney Wolfe Herd Changed the Dating Game

When Whitney Wolfe Herd launched Bumble, she simply wanted to create a dating app where women felt more at home. Now, three years later, the company is worth more than $1 billion, and she’s emerged as the unlikely face of a women’s movement.

This story originally appeared in the February 2018 issue with the headline “The Dating Game Changer.”

The first time I heard about Bumble, I was complaining about dating apps, a favorite pastime of those of us consigned to them. This was December 2015, and I’d spent four months swiping right (but mostly left) on Tinder. It had yielded three good dates, one of which turned into a thing that was not exactly a thing.

This vague land of maybe-sorta was the purgatory into which singles of the twenty-first century had landed. Everyone was chill, casual, too scared of missing out on something better tomorrow to commit to something today. “I’ll text you.” “We’ll text.” Whatever progress women had made in the professional realm seemed to run backward on those sites. Men were the hunters, and a woman’s duty was to sit still until she felt his spear. Every once in a while, I would wake up to a message sent in the middle of the night. “What u doin?” I wished I could create an after-hours bounce-back. It would say: “Sleeping, thank you.”

“I hate this thing,” I told a friend as I swiped through men in the form of human playing cards. Guy with car selfie: Nope. Guy with too much hair gel: Nope. Guy showing off abs in mirror: Nope.

“Have you tried Bumble?” my friend asked. “I hear the guys are better there.”

I was open to anything. Most of my single friends were on multiple sites. We Hinged, we OKC’ed, we went back to the pay apps, convincing ourselves nothing good came for free. “I’m doing another round of Match,” I announced one day, like it was chemo. But I quit after a few days. No matter what dealer I tried, the deck felt stacked against me.

Now in my early forties, I was part of the largest boom in single women ever. Some days this demographic shift felt like a feminist triumph, and other days it felt like a dating disaster. There were too many of us out there, with our yoga poses and our tasteful cleavage and our selfies from Machu Picchu, chasing a limited number of attractive, intelligent, successful single men who, it seemed to me, were drowning in sexual and romantic opportunity. I had lunch with a forty-something male friend who signed up for a few sites after his divorce, and he talked about struggling to keep his humanity. “Fish in a barrel,” one guy told him when he joined, and it proved true. My friend is in a relationship now. Me? Keep swiping, sweetheart. Maybe your luck will change.

When I told friends I was going to interview the founder of Bumble, they often asked the same question: Who is he?

I downloaded Bumble to my phone that night. At first blush, the app looked suspiciously like Tinder, with profiles containing half a dozen photos and a short bio. The app had that famous swipe-right-to-match function, a piece of game play so brilliant it had become a cultural reference point. The more time I spent on Bumble, however, the more different it seemed. Tinder always made me feel slightly sleazy, embarrassed for myself and other people. There was so much skin, and everyone was selling. Bumble had a friendlier vibe. “Classy” is a word often used to describe it. The soothing font, the chipper yellow design, but most importantly, the people. It was true: these men were better. I found my thumb moving rightward. Funny guy at piano: Yep. Outdoorsy guy on mountain range: Yep. Guy on sailboat, tipping his head back into the sun: Yep.

“BOOM!” the screen announced after I swiped right on Sailboat Dude. Then, in smaller letters, as though a girlfriend were whispering behind her cupped hand, “You both liked each other.”

Here I encountered the big twist in the Bumble game. The woman has to message the guy first. In fact, until I reached out to Sailboat Dude, he would be unable to speak to me. This kicky bit of female empowerment is what distinguishes Bumble from other dating apps on the market. As Bumble’s slogan goes, make the first move. I had 24 hours to complete this task before the match disappeared. A countdown clock appeared, like I was some action hero trying to defuse a bomb.

I should point out that any woman on any site ever created has technically been able to make the first move. The problem is that such forwardness could be used against you. In my early days on Tinder, I never hesitated to dash off an initial message, but I found that men often slinked away or showed little interest. My own confidence seemed to be working against me, cruelly presenting as a lack of confidence, or that horrible feminine sin—desperation. On Bumble, messaging first and fast could not be reframed as negative. This was simply how it worked.

I thumbed out a quick note: “Where were the sailing pictures taken?” Not exactly a Dorothy Parker line, but it would have to do.

Eventually I would learn this small inversion of courtship was quite controversial. People had all kinds of theories on what it meant for the shifting roles of men and women, the spread of online jackassery, and the nature of sex and desire itself. That night, though, I wasn’t thinking about any of those things. There was a cute guy on the other side of that screen, and in the small and sparkling afterglow of our mutual match, I felt something all too rare in the dating game. Hope.

Whitney Wolfe Herd at Bumble headquarters, in Austin, on August 23, 2017.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Bumble headquarters, soon after opening, in August 2017.

Photograph by Laura Dominguez

Left:

Whitney Wolfe Herd at Bumble headquarters, in Austin, on August 23, 2017.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Right:

Bumble headquarters, soon after opening, in August 2017.

Photograph by Laura Dominguez

I visited Bumble in May 2017 and found the country’s fastest-growing dating-app company crammed into a two-bedroom apartment near Fifth and Lamar in Austin. A bigger, flashier Bumble office was under construction, but for now the young staff jockeyed for space in a living room on the thirty-first floor, fashionably cluttered with the girl-world detritus of scented candles, promotional tote bags, and stacks of magazines. A floor-to-ceiling window offered a sweeping view of downtown and doubled as a whiteboard. Someone had written notes for a new billboard campaign in Magic Marker: “Be the CEO your parents always wanted you to marry.”

“Can I get you a Topo Chico?” asked 28-year-old Whitney Wolfe (soon to be Whitney Wolfe Herd; she was engaged at the time but not yet married), opening a chrome refrigerator. “I’m obsessed with Topo Chico,” she said, popping off the top of the popular mineral water whose groovy retro label happened to match the yellow decor. She told me she wanted to put a Topo Chico refrigerator in the new space, but the accountant was fighting her on it. “He keeps saying, ‘It’s $2 a bottle, Whit—for water.’ ” She drummed her fingernails on the countertop. “We haven’t settled that one yet,” she said, and then ushered me into a bedroom that had been converted into her office.

When I told friends I was going to interview the founder of Bumble, they often asked the same question: “Who is he?” Such is the tech-world bias. People assume even a site designed for women is run by a man. Whitney gets this all the time. “Can I speak to your boss?” Consider the marquee names: Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Bill Gates of Microsoft, Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, Jack Dorsey of Twitter, Kevin Systrom of Instagram, Evan Spiegel of Snapchat. Even among women in tech, Whitney feels like something of an outlier. She’s not your Sheryl Sandberg type: the straight-A overachiever, the class president. She admires the Lean In author, but Whitney was only an okay student (her words), though she showed an entrepreneurial flair. In her senior year at Southern Methodist University, she designed a bamboo tote to benefit victims of the BP oil spill, and celebrities like Nicole Richie and Denise Richards carried it. In another life, she might have gone into humanitarian work. But in this life, there was Tinder.

The early years of Tinder also contain the origin story of Bumble, and it’s the part Whitney would most love to get behind her, so let’s dispatch with it now. In 2012, a year after graduating from college, she was visiting a friend in Southern California when she met Justin Mateen and his best friend, Sean Rad, two USC grads hustling several tech ventures, and they enlisted her marketing skills. Along with Mateen, Rad, and three others, Whitney became part of the team that launched Tinder in September of that year. To create buzz, she traveled to SMU and papered her alma mater with flyers that read: Find out who likes you on campus. She crashed sorority meetings, the kind she had once attended, and told them to sign up, and then she rushed over to the frat houses and informed them that the hottest girls were on the app. She and Mateen eventually became a couple, despite the fact that he was her boss, and the drama that followed would probably make a good movie about the dangers of too much power and money. Instead, it became a lawsuit.

The chapter that followed, however, was ripped straight from the Girlfriend’s Guide to Revenge.

The unraveling went in this order: first her relationship with Mateen went bad. Then her relationship with Rad went bad. Anyone curious to know how bad can Google stories like “Every F—ed Up Text from the Tinder Sexual Harassment Lawsuit,” originally published on Gawker in July 2014, in which a jilted Mateen fires off texts to Whitney, his ex-girlfriend (and current employee), that range from menacing to unglued, with a dash of casual racism. “I will shit on him in life,” he says about one of her love interests. He later complains about her hanging out with “middle aged Muslim pigs.” Also at issue in the lawsuit brought against Tinder was Whitney’s status as co-founder, a title Rad bestowed on but then stripped from her. In the end, Mateen resigned from the company, Whitney retained her co-founder status, and Tinder settled without any admission of wrongdoing for a sum rumored to be more than $1 million.

Whitney is not allowed to talk about the lawsuit. “I wish them nothing but the best,” she said several times, in a voice that betrayed no animus. At the time, the case appeared to be just another entry in Silicon Valley’s massive macho problem (suits against Uber and Tesla followed). A national conversation about workplace harassment was still years away, and Whitney was barraged by Twitter insults and commentariat scorn. Slut, gold digger, bitch. She still seems unnerved by the days when the dragon’s mouth of the internet pointed toward her inbox.

The chapter that followed, however, was ripped straight from the Girlfriend’s Guide to Revenge. One of the many suitors who lined up to work with her was Andrey Andreev, the Russian founder of Badoo, a UK-based dating app that had more than 300 million users across the globe but never caught fire in the U.S. market. Andreev wondered if Whitney had any ventures in mind. She did have one concept: a social media network for teen girls in which compliments were the only form of communication. Merci, as she called it, was her attempt to be the change she wanted to see in the world. Andreev nudged her in another direction. What about a dating app? Was there a way to bring that positive energy to women in relationships instead?

“The last thing in the world I wanted to do was go back into the dating space,” Whitney said, which is funny, because I have said the same exact thing.

She had a name for her app: Moxie. Feisty, feminine. But Moxie turned out to be the name of a soda and a magazine, and there was no clear path to the URL. Okay, what else? She enlisted friends and friends of friends. She spent time on a Russian word generator. One day, in a brainstorming session, someone popped out with Bumble. She hated it at first, but like a good romantic comedy, her affection grew. Bumble was cute. It was memorable. Just think of all the possibilities for puns: the hive, the buzz, the honey, and of course the queen bee, a reminder of the powerful role women can play in mating.

Bumble launched in December 2014. Central to its mission was being a place where women felt at home. Early PR touted a “safe and respectful community.” The internet has long been a lawless place, but in the years leading up to Bumble’s arrival, it was becoming unbearable for some women. Rape threats, drive-by misogyny, unsolicited dick pics. A source in a Vanity Fair article blamed Tinder for “the dating apocalypse,” portraying a subculture in which boozy financial bros competed to see who could score the most meaningless bone. It wasn’t only Tinder, though; so much of technology enabled our worst impulses. The internet gave us what we wanted but robbed us of what we needed. Civility, humanity, empathy. On most dating sites, women are the most coveted customers, because without them the men disappear, and building a place where women could feel comfortable wasn’t merely noble politics. It was good business.

Whitney worked her marketing magic once more, hitting up the sorority and fraternity houses. She stayed under the radar for a while, hoping to iron out kinks on the app while word of mouth spread. I downloaded Bumble in December 2015, and the person who recommended it to me, a documentary filmmaker from L.A., had heard from another filmmaker using the app in Austin that Bumble was way better than Tinder. That’s all we knew, and that’s all that mattered to us. This works.

Or does it?

Whitney (second from right) with Bumble colleagues shortly after releasing the app in December 2014.

Courtesy of Bumble

Sailboat Dude took ten days to respond to my message. Ten whole days, which is a lifetime in the adrenalized world of online dating. Other guys didn’t message back at all. Crickets. Is this what men had been experiencing all along? The silence was defeating. I wasn’t sure I wanted any part of it.

“When we launched Bumble, we made what you might call a mistake,” Whitney told me, pausing to reconsider her words, and then emboldening them. “I’m willing to admit it was a mistake.” The mistake was that women had 24 hours to send the initial message, but men could take as long as they wanted to respond. The company soon corrected this imbalance, and the error was instructive. Something unexpected happened when they told guys how to behave—they did.

People like rules. This is one of the dirty secrets of human behavior. An enormous amount of anxiety in the dating world derives from not knowing exactly what the rules are. Should you text her after two days? Or two hours? Would splitting the check with him be a sign of disinterest or decency? Over on Tinder, where the perception is that everyone is neck-deep in casual sex and naked selfies, I’ve witnessed something quite different happening: nothing. My Tinder matches are a long scroll of people I never heard from once. He was attracted to me, I was attracted to him. But when no one has to make the first move, it’s often the case that everyone does diddly-squat.

“I don’t know why the leaders of social networks have overlooked the idea of rules,” Whitney said. “Real-life behavior is becoming more reflective of social media instead of vice versa, and that’s a dangerous thing.” Whitney watches Jeff Bezos videos on YouTube sometimes, and there’s a line that has stayed with her. “Humans lose their kindness gene when they hide behind a screen.” Her question was, How can they get it back?

Users needed to be held accountable for their words and actions—the internet had ignored that concept, and real humans were suffering the consequences. As the company grew, Bumble found new ways to tweak the experience. A ban on shirtless mirror selfies. Photo verification to reduce the risk of online phonies. Though the app was primarily geared toward heterosexuals, it positioned itself as inclusive. (With same-sex users, either party could initiate contact.) Bumble rewards active and conscientious users with VIBee (“Very Important Bee”) status.

The response to all this was huge. The app has been downloaded nearly 27 million times—only half of Tinder’s 50 million, sure, but those guys had a two-year head start. The app is free, but 10 percent of users pay for bonus features, and nearly half of those paying customers are women. In 2017 the company made more than $100 million in sales and is projected to double that number in 2018.

There’s a word for what Whitney brought to mobile dating apps, and it’s not just empowerment. It’s etiquette.

Politeness isn’t sexy, though. Nobody is begging anyone else to send a photo of their wet and throbbing manners.

One of the original slogans she considered for Bumble was “Online manners.” Politeness isn’t sexy, though. Nobody is begging anyone else to send a photo of their wet and throbbing manners. The slogan Whitney settled on—“Make the first move”—had the mouthfeel of the moment. Like “The future is female,” the motto was catnip for a generation of young women eager to feel their destiny beneath their fingertips. Yes, finally: a dating site that put women in control.

The notion that women were not already in control of dating struck some as absurd. Wasn’t it women who were the selectors, who had the ability to say yes or no, go away or come closer? Wasn’t it men who hovered around them, angling to win their attention, their hearts, at the very least their nude pics? One problem with the battle-of-the-sexes language common to this conversation is that it’s wildly imprecise. No one gender is all winners, or losers, at anything. For every Wall Street alpha male enjoying his wood-fired ribeye with yet another stunning blonde, there are a hundred guys staring at a blank screen. There were just so many of them out there, with their dad bods and their Michael Lewis books. Very few of us were winning this game.

Not everyone was on board with the idea of women reaching out first, of course. Some men recoiled at the concept, which actually became a nice way to filter out users who didn’t like strong women. But I also spoke to a few strong women who didn’t like it either. “I already do most of the work in my relationships,” said a friend of mine, a single mother who runs her own business. “Now I have to ask the guy out too?”

One valid critique of contemporary feminism is that even as women have gained more power, we were not released from previous pressures. We just have more to do. We have to be leaders in our profession and smoking hot. We have to be breadwinners and the perfect mothers.

Bumble isn’t demanding that women ask men out, though. Most users I spoke to admitted that as soon as the first message was sent, the dynamic reverted back to a traditional one, which might be depressing or encouraging, depending on your perspective. What the app does demand is that women set the tone. Whitney has had conversations with men who were close to tears while talking about how hard it was to be the one putting themselves out there, risking rejection. This was eye-opening to her. She always thought of men as the ones who hurt our feelings, not the other way around. Her hope is that by releasing these guys from the need to strut, to impress, “hey baby” and whatnot, men can relax, and women can create the kind of civil conversation they want to have. One of the early goals of feminism, after all, was not that women would act more like men but that everyone would be released from polarized gender roles and meet in a freer and happier middle ground.

Feminism: it’s not a word Whitney always embraced. Back in March 2015, when the site HelloGiggles dubbed her app “feminist Tinder,” she was taken aback. “Feminist”? What were they talking about? She didn’t hate men. Here we should note that Whitney was raised in Salt Lake City, the daughter of a stay-at-home mother (Catholic) and a real-estate-developer father (Jewish) in traditional Mormon country. She spent her college years as a sorority girl on a campus that now houses the George W. Bush Presidential Library and her early twenties at the sausage party known as Tinder, so no, Gloria Steinem wasn’t in the rotation. The more she thought about the word, though, the more she saw that it expressed her core values: equality, compassion, respect. “I have been sexist before,” she said. “I have called girls names. I have gone with the misogynist flow.” But she wanted to take a kinder path—to lift one another up, not tear one another down.

Feminism wasn’t anti-male either, she realized. In fact, she believed feminism could help women and men build a true partnership, something she’d found with her now husband, Michael Herd, an oil and gas heir who also owns the Grove Kitchen & Gardens, in Tyler. No, she didn’t meet him on Bumble. They met while skiing in Colorado. She changed her name to Whitney Wolfe Herd when they married, a reflection of the support he’d given her and a reminder of their shared path. Was that “feminist”? Sure, why not? She glowed whenever she spoke of him, though she was careful to point out that marriage was not necessarily the answer.

“I run a dating site, but I will gladly tell someone, ‘Do not date someone if it’s not right,’ ” she said. “And don’t settle. This settling thing is insane. I’ve literally had to force friends out of relationships because they want to be married by a certain age, so they just date these guys that are not right for them.”

“Don’t settle.” It’s the mantra of twenty-first-century relationships. And it’s one of the most important philosophies fueling the rise of online dating.

Back in March 2015, when the site HelloGiggles dubbed her app “feminist Tinder,” she was taken aback. “Feminist”?

In 1992, my first year of college, the Cameron Crowe movie Singles featured a memorable gag about a character so desperate she joined a video dating service. The early nineties were obsessed with authenticity, and nothing said phoniness like making an ad for yourself. Singles stood in the long Hollywood tradition of portraying romance as the ultimate act of serendipity. You will meet in a rock club. You will meet at a magazine stand. On the street, in a grocery store, in a coffee shop.

Fast-forward a quarter century, and chances are you will meet online. It’s the second-most-popular way couples meet these days, after meeting through friends. Meanwhile, the personal dating profile has gone from a loser’s game to something of a modern necessity. Grandmothers have them. Cool eighteen-year-olds have them. Maybe even Cameron Crowe, now divorced, has one.

“I think I’ve tried every single online dating site,” said my friend Patricia, whose thick auburn hair and Southern charm reminds me of the actress Connie Britton, from Friday Night Lights. She hit the air with her finger to punctuate the phrase. Every. Single. Site.

Back in Dallas, where I live, Patricia and I had brunch in June with our friend Allison (who reminds me of the actress Diane Lane) in a restaurant off Lower Greenville that serves artisanal toast and fancy coffee described as something like “cardamom and rose hips married in an espresso blend.” We joked that the latte was the only thing married at the table. We are in our forties, but there is not a wedding or child between us. Instead, we have become something increasingly common in society: experts on online dating.

Over the past four decades, the average age of marriage for women in the U.S. has crept up from 22 to 28, and the past few generations have seen a shift away from traditional marriage, nuclear families, and social convention and toward a more luxurious freedom, as though you could stretch the good times of college across an entire decade (or two). Women have all this time—to hook up, to travel, to drink ourselves blind. Patricia got engaged, twice. Allison moved to New York and back again. I also moved to New York and sank into a drinking problem, finally quitting at 35. Amid all the professional triumphs and the champagne toasts and the trips to Paris or Venice or London, none of us ever managed to become the only things society has historically let a woman be: a wife, a mother. It may sound very Broad City of us, but I can assure you that for me, it was an accident. Sometimes I feel like I woke up in a life I never chose or necessarily wanted. Perpetual singlehood just happened to me.

Several years ago, the economics writer Jon Birger became fascinated by a trend. His workplace at Fortune was filled with attractive, intelligent, highly dateable women who seemed nonetheless unable to find a mate. When he and his wife contemplated which single male friends they might set these women up with, they were struck by that old cliché: the good men really were all taken. Birger wanted to untangle this knot, and his surprising answer was . . . sex ratio. Across cities and colleges and cliques, a lopsided sex ratio shaped behavior. Where men were in scarce supply, sexual mores loosened. More casual sex, less commitment. In areas where women were in scarce supply, the opposite was true. At a time when college-educated people mostly wanted to date other college-educated people, this ratio was increasingly a problem, because female graduates have outnumbered male graduates since the early eighties. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 34 percent more women than men received a college degree in 2016. Birger’s thesis, delivered in a brisk, isn’t-data-crazy way, is that the unintended consequences of women kicking men’s asses in college entrance numbers was that their own future romantic prospects were diminished. (I noticed his 2015 book, Date-Onomics, on the Bumble bookshelf.)

I saw a lot of my own experience in that book. I’d long rolled my eyes at friends and magazine articles telling me to get serious about marriage, but as I inched toward forty, I could feel myself up against it, while guys my own age paired off with twenty-somethings. Sex ratio doesn’t entirely explain this disparity, of course. Social norms, psychology, and game theory are among other dynamics Birger considers in his book. The numbers point in the same direction, however. As he writes, “It is a mathematical certainty that the marriage prospects will worsen for college-grad women the longer they stay in the dating game.” Gulp. Then again, I don’t have any regrets about not ending up with the boyfriends from whom I eventually split. When I look at the three of us—Patricia, Allison, and me—I see women who would love to be married. But at what cost?

From left: Whitney, Man Repeller founder Leandra Medine, former Teen Vogue editor in chief Elaine Welteroth, and Beautycon Media CEO Moj Mahdara speak onstage at Girlboss Rally, hosted by Sophia Amoruso’s Girlboss on November 11, 2017, in New York City.

Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Girlboss Media

All of us were on Bumble. Never-been-marrieds are the biggest users of online dating, according to a Pew Research Center study, and Bumble is a blessed relief from the Tinder years, which were preceded by the Grindr years, when my gay male friends shared wild tales of tech-enabled debauchery, and I had no idea the hookup-app frenzy was coming for me next. What I resented about Tinder was the implication that I was there to have commitment-free fun and casual sex. I’m not against casual sex—under the right circumstances, with the right guy, under a full moon. But I sure as hell don’t want some stranger to demand it. Women get paid for that. Bumble reset expectations. It placed the emphasis back on relationships and away from the momentary satisfaction of the id, so I don’t have to explain to a potential date that there won’t be sex, which means I don’t have to feel like a hypocrite if there is some (but probably not, mister). Tinder started to feel like a game, a time waster, but Bumble was where you went if you were for real.

At least that was the hope. Patricia sees guys on Tinder sleazing it up, then the same guys over on Bumble, presenting as boyfriend material. Allison was disappointed to learn a trick of the trade from a recent Bumble date.

“He’d been advised by a friend to swipe right on everyone. A hundred percent!” she said, banging the table with her open palm. “And when there’s a mutual match, then you decide if you want to accept a conversation with the person.”

“That is not right,” said Patricia, and she stared off for a moment. “Certain things are falling into place.”

According to a 2014 story in the New York Times, women on Tinder swipe right 14 percent of the time, compared with men’s 46 percent. Guys were swiping, swiping, swiping while we pulled out our magnifying glasses. People criticize these apps for being shallow, but you’d be surprised how much data you can mine: we judged photo quality and grammar, we checked Instagram feeds and Spotify playlists, we studied background details. Books? Yes. Guns? No.

There was one more aspect of Bumble that bothered Allison and Patricia, and funny enough, it was the app’s signature feature.

“I’m not hardwired to make the first move,” said Allison. “I’ll suck it up, but what about the third move? That’s back on you, buddy.”

Patricia agreed. “I know people have tried to say we’ve evolved. But deep down, a woman wants to be pursued.”

Should women lead the mating dance? No one I spoke to could agree on this question. For every guy who told me he didn’t think it was a good look, there were two guys who told me it was their fantasy. For every woman who told me it was no big deal, there were two (more like four) who said no way.

I reached out to David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, who said, actually, women often make the first move in romantic interactions—we just don’t call it by that name. “A smile. A casual touch on the arm. An eye glance that’s held a split second longer than normal,” he said. “Those are invitations. If you’re only evaluating the crude level of who walks across the room, then yeah, the man is probably making the first move. But it’s much more mutual than that.”

Buss is the author of The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, as well as the co-author, with UT clinical psychologist Cindy Meston, of Why Women Have Sex. He doesn’t like the term “hardwired,” a word often used in conversations like these, because it suggests inflexibility, when human mating strategies are highly sensitive. It’s true that men are more geared toward short-term mating (his jargon for hookups) than women, but both sides will change according to social conditions. Sex ratio. Peer influence. Cultural norms. In the ever-fascinating debate between nature and environment, the answer is both/and. We are made a certain way, and we adapt.

One of the many problems with online dating is that it takes our exquisitely evolved mating strategies and throws them into a whole new context. Male persistence, once a sign of a man’s investment, may now indicate little but the ability to cut and paste. For women, online dating took away the subtle nonverbal cues they historically used to signal interest. What’s nice about smiling at a guy across a crowded room is that if he doesn’t respond, no harm, no foul. Sending the first message is a more direct action, though, and entails the possibility of a blunt rejection.

Buss thinks women’s reluctance to overtly initiate will ease in time, as new generations become more accustomed to online dating. “Cultural evolution is taking over where biological evolution left off,” he said.

One of the many problems with online dating is that it takes our exquisitely evolved mating strategies and throws them into a whole new context.

On a warm evening last summer, I met Cynthia, age 21, in a crowded bar in Uptown Dallas within eyeshot of an American flag made of beer cans. “Do you follow Bumble on Instagram?” she asked, her long brown hair spilling over her tan shoulders. Ninety percent of Bumble users are 18 to 40, and social media is their lingua franca. Bumble’s Instagram feed (more than 450,000 followers) offers little shots of inspiration and attitude: “You will be ‘too much’ for some people. Those aren’t your people.” (6,108 likes.) “A wise woman once said ‘fuck the bullshit’ and lived happily ever after.” (7,227 likes.)

Cynthia was a journalism student at SMU. I’d assumed college was one of the few times you’d be free from the tyranny of online dating, since campus life offers what dating apps must artificially create—a bevy of like-minded single peers your age. But as young people moved their social lives onto their phones, their romantic lives inevitably followed. SMU is one of the top ten most active Bumble campuses, a list that also includes UT-Austin and Texas A&M University. Cynthia transferred to SMU as a junior, and she went on Bumble looking for something to do as much as someone to date.

She can still recite Mike’s bio: KA. SMU. 6′4″. (KA is the fraternity Kappa Alpha.) A former model, Cynthia is six feet tall, so height matters. There was also Mike’s third photo, running on a beach, Baywatch-style, with a skimboard under his arm.

She shot off a note. “You had me at 6′4″, and you kept me at your third picture.” A few weeks later, she moved in with him. Cynthia loves Bumble—the brand, the clever marketing, the whole package—and she doesn’t understand why some of her female friends twist themselves in knots over sending the first message. “I guess it’s a confidence problem,” she said, dipping a straw in and out of a large swirl margarita.

Mike does not have a confidence problem. He described himself as “one of the top five most confident people you’ll ever meet,” although I’ve never thought to rank them. His booming voice easily cut through the ambient chatter of the bar. He can’t remember Cynthia’s Bumble bio, a fact that lightly annoyed her, but he remembers the first night she came over to his house and they cooked dinner together, and she kissed him first. A bold advance on her part, one he very much enjoyed.

“Totally out of character,” Cynthia said of the kiss. She can be reserved, but she wanted Mike to know she was into him. Her instinct to make the first move turned out to be a good one.

“Happiest eighteen months of my life,” Mike said, as he looked over at Cynthia with a wide grin.

Whitney at Bumble headquarters.

Courtesy of Bumble

Whitney and her husband, Michael Herd, at their wedding.

Courtesy of Whitney Wolfe Herd

Left:

Whitney at Bumble headquarters.

Courtesy of Bumble

Right:

Whitney and her husband, Michael Herd, at their wedding.

Courtesy of Whitney Wolfe Herd

I visited Bumble’s new Austin headquarters on an unusually sunny afternoon in late December. The yellow building sat among the drab supply stores near Medical Parkway and 41st like a glorious butter sunset. “Have a bee-autiful day,” read a painted brick wall near the parking lot. Bumble had been having a lot of those lately.

In December, Whitney was on the cover of Forbes’s “30 Under 30” issue. They dubbed her “The $1 Billion Queen Bee of Dating Apps.” Match Group, the Dallas-based company that owns Match.com and Tinder, among several others, had recently made a bid to acquire Bumble. They reportedly offered $450 million. According to Forbes, Bumble turned them down, so Match Group went back—and offered more than $1 billion. (On January 23, after this story went to press, CNBC reported that Badoo, the majority owner of Bumble, was looking to sell the company for $1.5 billion.)

“This is a very exciting moment for our company,” Whitney told me. She said Bumble was entertaining several opportunities, and she would say no more. “I’m not thinking about an exit, but I am thinking about solving problems for our users and women around the world. I am focused on building a big, impactful brand.”

Feminism, a word that once scared Whitney, turned out to be big business. The fall of 2017 had brought a reckoning with sexual violence, workplace harassment, and troubled gender relations. We were living in a #metoo moment, with women demanding real change, and Whitney’s company was poised to answer that call. “Misogyny has hit epidemic proportions,” she said. “And I truly believe there is going to be an ongoing revolution that will not only tame the snake but cut off its head. That’s why I get out of bed every day. How can I be a part of the solution?”

In October the app launched Bumble Bizz, a new feature that helps women build professional connections. It’s a female-centric LinkedIn, a site that has run into its own controversy over unwanted sexual advances from male users. Bizz is part of Bumble’s expansion into a more general social network. In 2016 the company had added Bumble BFF, a feature that helps people build friendships with other users of the same gender.

“Bumble is not a dating app,” Whitney told me. “Bumble is a brand that empowers women and empowers men to respect women.” This was our third conversation in twice as many months, and each time she sounded more confident. She has often spoken about her anxiety, but she was growing into her role as the leader of a global brand. Her team currently has seventy employees worldwide, with offices in L.A., New York, London, Germany, and Australia, and approximately 85 percent of those employees are women.

“Bumble is not a dating app,” Whitney told me. “Bumble is a brand that empowers women and empowers men to respect women.”

What struck me is that Whitney has real presence, and yet she remains kind and relatable, two classically feminine features that have gotten us across the potholes of history, for good reason: they work. Our conversations veered from complex social problems to a shared tendency to get horribly lost while driving to the difficulty of finding our tribes as we get older. Women often connect through our insecurities, the places where our armor is cracked, and each time I left a conversation with her, I thought, We could be friends. And then I’d stumble upon, say, the Vogue coverage of her Amalfi wedding, where she wore a couture Oscar de la Renta gown and was flanked by seventeen bridesmaids, and I’d think, Never mind. But her ability to connect was a welcome shift from the stereotype of the tech mogul, the guy who only understands systems and code. Here was someone who understood human nature.

I spent a good thirty minutes wandering around the new headquarters, a riot of bold color and playful design. Whitney never did get that Topo Chico refrigerator, though a case sat on the counter near a mirrored cabinet lined with blue goblets and yellow champagne flutes. Walking through the 4,800-square-foot space was like touring a Pinterest wonderland of sparkly things. There was so much to take in: the stylish hexagonal tile of the dining area, where farm-to-table lunches are served four days a week by the anti-corporate catering company Sifted; the glam room, where staff can get a blowout and a manicure every other week (and mothers could privately breast pump). My eyes traveled greedily along every new texture and pattern, every unique light fixture.

The office was already expanding. The company had outgrown it by the time they opened, so they leased the gym space next door. As I stood at one end of the office, I peered out at a cluster of young women in jeans and ankle boots tapping away at their laptops, sitting on a lush yellow velvet couch that stretched along three walls. The Hive, they call this place. I’ve been in many workspaces in many cities, and the most remarkable thing about Bumble was this: people looked happy.

“Brains are the new beauty,” a sign on the wall read, and not too far away hung a glossy black-and-white photo of a young Brigitte Bardot, suggesting that beauty never quite stopped being the old beauty. The fun of being a woman in 2018, perhaps, is that you no longer have to choose.

Nobody did anything wrong so much as nothing was right enough. Ours is a lassitude borne of endless options, all those greener pastures a click away.

My favorite book about online dating is Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance, which the comedian co-wrote with sociologist Eric Klinenberg. (After this story went to press, Ansari was implicated in a scandal of his own, which suggests that he, and our culture, still has much more to puzzle out on the subject of modern romance.) The book captures, in a funny but powerful way, how our relationships have been shaped by technology. Ours is a generation that expects to choose—whom we marry, what we do for a living, where we live—and as the book unfolds, you see, in comparisons across history and culture, how this multiplicity of choice is both the miracle of modern living and the source of our paralysis.

Everyone wants a soul mate. The problem is that not everyone gets a soul mate. Or maybe you do get a soul mate, but he isn’t your husband. Maybe you get two soul mates, three soul mates, and the torture of your life will be an inability to choose between them.

Ansari talks about the research of sociologist Andrew Cherlin, who found that the soul-mate marriage has the highest potential for happiness and the highest potential for disappointment.

I pulled up Bumble; I scrolled through my choices. There were just so many of us out here, with our dreams of being seen fully without ever having to fully reveal ourselves. We liked beaches, we liked travel, we liked dining out. There was something calming about the steady stream of dateable men who trickled into my filter, and something terribly depressing.

“BOOM! You both swiped each other.” (They had changed the wording in the app from “liked” to “swiped”—not terribly romantic, but certainly more accurate.)

Maybe I meet him for coffee. Maybe we talk about Netflix, complain about social media, mourn the fact that everyone is addicted to their phones, and then exit the coffee shop and check our messages. Was it me? Was it him? Was it the distracted world?

“In small-group living, you would have been exposed to a few dozen potential mates,” said Buss, the evolutionary psychologist. “Whereas now, with internet dating sites and urban living, we’re exposed to thousands of potential mates, so there’s a sense of unlimited opportunity, there’s a sense that you can find someone who fulfills each one of the 53 things that you want in a mate. In a way it’s unrealistic, but also the abundance of choice plays havoc with our evolved psychology.”

Nobody did anything wrong so much as nothing was right enough. Ours is a lassitude borne of endless options, all those greener pastures a click away. Users spend an average of ninety minutes a day on Bumble, which is quite a time sink, but I wonder how much of that hour and a half is spent nurturing the connections you already have and how much is spent chasing after ones that might be better. The problem with dating apps is something like the problem with Western capitalism: there is always more to want.

Once I saw a cute professor-type at Whole Foods standing by the soups with his rectangular black glasses and a spray of silver hair, while I stood about twenty feet away, thinking, What happens next? The divide between us seemed impossible to bridge. It was so strange that I could unsheathe the phone from my pocket and reach all the way to Italy, to China, but he was standing right there, and I couldn’t say a word.

I wonder if this is a female problem or a modern-life problem or a human problem. How hard it is to connect. I read stories about the coming age of Japanese sex robots and virtual-reality porn, and I wonder what it will do to us. Will we even bother with each other anymore? If nobody has to make the first move, will anyone?

Recently I met a guy for a Bumble date at a crowded Southeast Asian restaurant. “I’m thinking of deleting the app off my phone,” he confessed. “Everything about this is so phony.”

It’s not what I expected him to say, so he had my attention. We talked about the challenge of dating profiles. We talked about compressing our personalities to four-sentence bites. We talked about his childhood in India, and the challenges I had in New York, a city both of us think is too crowded, and how few of these small yet meaningful details were in our profiles, which allowed us to discover them on our own. He joked about how every woman’s profile looks the same.

“‘You like tacos? Everyone likes tacos!’ ” he said, and I laughed, because I talked about liking tacos in my profile. Wasn’t it a little bit funny, how we had all managed to end up the same while trying to be so special? We were doomed. We were lucky. We were both at once. The waiter brought papaya salad to the table, and grilled satay, and Vietnamese meatballs, and our chopsticks made clicking sounds as we moved food from the shared plates onto our own. 

“I’m having fun,” he said, looking up at me with a smile. “Are you having fun?” 

Sarah Hepola lives in Dallas. She is the author of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget.

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Tags: Dating, Gender, Technology, The Culture, Bumble, Whitney Wolfe

Comments

  • Kenneth Hiller

    Was the repeated male-bashing in this piece necessary?

    • Pamela

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  • Deborah Riherd

    I am appalled by this statement in an article that is otherwise about female empowerment: “I’m not against casual sex—under the right circumstances, with the right guy, under a full moon. But I sure as hell don’t want some stranger to demand it. Women get paid for that.” Women get paid for that? As if the sex trade is a legitimate choice for women? This statement ruined the article for me, and some editor, or the author herself, should have caught how degrading and demeaning this statement was. There is simply no excuse for this statement.

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