There are myriad ways dating sites and apps can divine your relationship status. For starters, they know you're not busy on Valentine's Day, and they probably know whether or not you shopped for anything even remotely Valentine's Day related. They know a lot, and as you well know by now, you told them.
Online dating marketers are incredibly good at hitting those inspirational notes that get lonely hearts to look for love (again and again and again). The collateral comes in all forms, from broad-stroke public advertising to narrow-cast posts on generalist social media sites. They say your match is out there. They implore anyone who will listen to stop looking for love in all the wrong places. Sick of being single? Here's an article listing twenty awesome benefits of being in a happy relationship.
Valentine's Day is a content marketer's dream come true, because love really is pretty awesome. The proposition is clear: Mr. or Mrs. Right is on our site or app. Now get in there and swipe your heart out!
Social media is amazing. You sign up for an account at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any number of smaller sites, and proceed to give information about yourself to the world (or at least what you choose to represent as yourself).
People seem to like you. It feels great. So, you give more information. You start feeling perhaps a little too comfortable posting pictures--scenes from your life--maybe you don't worry about location services, because, hey, they definitely make it easier to find a place to eat or get a drink.
Dating sites are similar, but the kind of information that users share is more granular. If you are passionate about dogs, watches, Eric Clapton, and northern Italian food, the only way you're going to find a person who is equally passionate about those things is to put it out there.
Valentine's Day is an opportunity for dating sites to increase their number of active users. It's also a time for scam artists to make a killing.
More than half of single America thinks dating sites and apps are the best way to meet people, and--notwithstanding the selection of our current president--more than half of any population can't be entirely wrong.
Or can't they? What if dating sites represent the tipping point of "overshare culture," and with it the surveillance economy that relies on it?
Catfishing is relatively rare according to the dating sites that I reached out to, but when it does happen the results can be devastating.
The term dates back to the 1940s, but was popularized by the 2010 documentary of the same name and subsequent MTV show. It is a deceptive practice that deploys a fake identity, sometimes called a social media sock puppet, that is used to forge a virtual relationship with a victim, who is groomed to cough up money or other assets (like personally identifying information that can be used for fraud).
Dating sites are an El Dorado for a scam artist. Everything they need for a "big job" is potentially there--connection to larger troves of information about the user (Instagram, Facebook), and, with that, relative ease when it comes to obtaining the true identity of someone using an alias on the dating app or site. But most importantly, as anyone who has been sadly single on Valentine's Day knows, it provides a direct connection to people vulnerable in all the ways that a scam artist can exploit.
Character Is Fate
Hands down, dating-related social media makes more money bringing in new users and selling data to third parties than it does protecting existing ones. This is a constant in the surveillance economy. When asked what they do to protect against scams, the companies I contacted all seemed to sing from the same hymnal.
"Match has a dedicated team and sophisticated technology that patrols for fraud and reviews each and every member profile to block IP addresses from high alert countries, stolen credit card numbers and red flag language in profiles," a Match spokesman told me.
"We utilize a network of industry-leading automated and manual moderation and review tools, systems and processes--and spend millions of dollars annually--to prevent, monitor and remove inappropriate behavior from our app," a Tinder spokesperson said. "These tools include automatic scans of profiles for red-flag language and images and manual reviews of suspicious profiles, activity, and user generated reports. We are constantly evaluating and refining our processes to protect our users."
The reality is that while basic precautions are no doubt taken, the focus of any online social media company is two-fold: 1. increase users and time spent on the network and 2. sell anonymized (most likely re-identifiable) information to advertisers and third parties. While it is important to create a safe place for networking, the bottom line predicates the focus be pointed at the bottom line.
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and other major privacy depredations, no organization should get the benefit of the doubt. There is no easy way to make dating network users safer. While companies looking to protect users can easily be perceived as creepy, or invasive, one of the best ways to truly protect users might be to eavesdrop on their conversations. I can't advocate that, and no one concerned about consumer privacy should. As anyone knows, many online companies have no scruples about this kind of surveillance. The real question is when will users start to have a problem with companies not respecting their privacy enough to protect it as well as possible, and let their deactivated accounts do the talking.
Provable, enforced privacy has never been a bigger selling point. It's only a matter of time before the market falls out of love with the lures of the surveillance economy.