How Bumble is making space for our LGBTQIA+ community and revolutionising the way women date.

Navigating the online dating landscape can be both daunting and exhausting. In a world where thirst traps and fire emojis are currency and “you up?” takes precedence over “can I see you again?” even the most seasoned veterans can get overwhelmed. It can be challenging.  Navigating the vast pool of apps is one thing, but we all know that finding ‘the one’ is more complex than a simple swipe to the right, and at times we find ourselves lost in a sea of unsolicited messages or even worse, photos. 

Earlier in the year I had the privilege of sitting down with Lucille McCart, the APAC Communications Director for Bumble. What launched in 2014 as the first-ever women-driven dating app, has completely revolutionised the way we approach online relationships. In this interview, we discussed the challenges involved in dating online, the importance of user protection and why putting women in the driver's seat has been the key to designing a cyber space where respect, equality, and meaningful connections take centre stage.

Bumble started a movement by putting women in charge when it comes to dating, as someone who has tried out all available platforms it is by far the safest and most comfortable to use as a woman, would I be correct in assuming this is why it was created in the first place? There was an obvious gap in the market for a tool we, as women can use to take charge of what is usually a male-dominated area?

Yes, Bumble was launched nearly ten years ago in 2014. Our CEO and founder, Whitney Wolfe Herd had been a part of a different dating app, and after leaving that business had experienced a lot of really negative trolling online. She was taking some time off and thinking about the way we speak to each other online and how it is unacceptable that people feel like they can say things to you over a screen or through a keyboard that they would never say or do in person. While she was thinking about this, she considered the fact that not a lot of dating apps or dating products at the time were built with women in mind. She started looking around at her friends and thinking, I know so many successful women, I know so many smart women, and I know so many women that are breaking the glass ceiling at work and don't stand for inequality in so many parts of their life, but when it comes to dating they are really traditional. They still wait for a man to ask for their number, they still wait for a man to ask them out and they still wait for the man to make all the big moves in a relationship. Whilst thinking through all of these things she came up with the concept for Bumble, the idea being, if in heterosexual relationships you put the woman in the driver's seat and have her make the first move, that might start the conversation out with a more respectful, more equal tone and hopefully set the standard for the potential relationship to follow. One of the biggest barriers for women on online dating programs is unwanted messages or rude messages that usually stem from men feeling like they need to be really aggressive because you're putting them in this vulnerable space. Everyone is afraid of rejection and that feeling of rejection is unfortunately what drives a lot of bad behaviour. It's about trying to change that dynamic from the start and see if that can last throughout relationships. Many years later, there's been thousands of Bumble engagement parties and weddings and babies. I think Whitney has proven that her idea works.

As we progress as a society we are of course aware that gender isn’t simply how we present biologically. It is incredibly impressive that Bumble has taken this into account and altered its system to keep the space safe for our LGBTQIA+ community, can you tell me more about this? 

It is really interesting how much this conversation has come to the forefront since Bumble started. Bumble has only been around for a relatively short time, but making sure that we are adapting and being able to serve everyone is crucial. Bumble is built by women, our CEO is a woman, our VP of Product is a woman, I believe that 73% of our board of directors are women. It's a company that's built by women with women's experiences in mind, in the hope that we can make the experience better for everyone. It is important to say that Trans women are women too, and for a long time they have felt excluded from the traditional dating space. Through Bumble’s gender options that we provide (of which there are many), you can identify however suits you, and you are able to change that identity as you continue your journey too. For non-binary people that use Bumble, we have changed the experience so anyone can make the first move in matches between two non-binary people. 

and I know Bumble has a resident sexologist which is incredible, why was this important for the company?

I think it's really important to speak to people who understand our audience in a different way than we do. We understand our audience from speaking to them and seeing their behaviour, but we work with people like Chantelle Otten, an experienced sexologist, who can provide perspective on what people are struggling with, what they're talking about, and what the issues are. We also work with astrologers and a wide range of other experts who can provide unique insights to help drive our strategy. One of the most popular badges in the app is the Astrology badge, so we know our community cares about this. 

Can you tell me more about the complementary trauma support Bumble offers? 

We launched the Bloom feature 18 months ago. It's in partnership with a company called Chayn that offers trauma-informed support and mental health support. We created a programme with them so that if someone reports violence, sexual assault or relationship abuse to our customer care team, then they can provide access to an online library healing programs. There's also the opportunity to do one on one therapy sessions or participate in group sessions. Healing is a really important part of the journey if you have been a victim of a sexual assault or in an abusive relationship, and this feature is an acknowledgement of that. We have a vast range of safety features that we employ with the goal of trying to make sure that bad things don't happen on or off the app, including AI screening tools; photo verification features; video chat features; a feature called Private Detector which blurs what we suspect could be nude images so that people have the option to view them or not, and many more.

So if an image was received that was unsolicited, users have some protection?

Exactly right. If you receive a nude image, the technology gives you the option to opt-in to view it, decline to view it, or block and report it right there. We work hard to try and make sure that people with bad intentions aren't able to use our app to meet people, however if that does somehow happen we have a responsibility to provide support, which is where these safety features we have built come in. What really sets Bumble apart is our policies and the way that we manage our community. A few years ago we introduced policies specifically classifying body shaming and racial fetishization as sexual harassment. That gives us grounds to warn or block people for using that language. I think that is a really interesting area because, it's often men but a lot of people in general, do use body shaming language online.  Sometimes they think they're flirting because there's so little understanding of what is acceptable to say to someone without their consent. There's so much education that needs to happen around what's acceptable -  why it's not okay to talk to people in a way that makes it all about their body and not about the fact that they're a human being. One of the things that I think is really cool that we do, is that while we can block people for body shaming, we can also give warnings, and when we give these warnings we share informative material. 

Amazing, so they can be professionally educated from the experience rather than just removed? 

Yes, so that they can learn. If we simply push these people off our app, they just go and use another one, that doesn't actually change their behaviour. If we want to change behaviour, we really need to try and take opportunities to educate. Like I said, a lot of people think they are being complimentary but what it really does is say ‘I’m only interested in you because of, for example, the colour of your skin’ and that’s not treating that person like a human being. We actually did some research on this in New Zealand, and 20% of people felt like they had been fetishized when dating. Most of it relates to body type or race, but a lot of people don't feel like they have an understanding of what fetishization even is. While we might not be able to name the behaviour, 70% of the people we surveyed in New Zealand, said that being open minded and able to understand the experience of other people is a really important value for any partner to have. People in New Zealand that are dating want their partners to be open minded and to be able to understand the experiences of others. I thought that was pretty cool.

I really love that, and it’s not just romance, Bumble can facilitate both business and friendships too? I have a friend that moved abroad and found Bumble For Friends really helpful when trying to settle in a foreign area. Can you tell me how users can make the most of Bumble For Friends? 

That's actually my favourite of all the products because it's open to anyone to use. I don’t think there’s much of a stigma about using dating apps anymore and putting yourself out there saying you're looking for a romantic connection, but there is a stigma associated with saying you're looking for friends. People feel like it says something about them if they don't have friends, but we know that's not the case. There's a lot of reasons why you might find yourself without the robust social circle that you had at school or uni, like you said, moving away or just drifting apart, working in different industries to your friends. So many life events happen that can mean that things change in your friendship circle, there really isn't anything to be ashamed of. We've been talking for the last couple of years, even before the pandemic about the loneliness epidemic, young people feel more lonely than ever because they're so online, they are missing out on a lot of in person connection and true friendship. That doesn't mean you can't make true friends online (you absolutely can!) but a lot of the things that held people together, say 50 years ago, aren't as prevalent anymore. Going to church or community clubs, all these things that our parents did that were ways of staying connected to your local community, those don't really happen in the same way or at the same rate. We're so online, our lives are so busy, we're working harder to keep our heads above water. The world is so expensive and not many people feel they have the time to go to Bowls Club on a Thursday afternoon. Loneliness seems to be the resulting impact of what is a real lack of community. Bumble For Friends works the same way a date would, it will show people in your age range, living in your area that you might want to be friends with, whether that is a lifelong friendship or just someone to go to yoga with, it doesn't really matter, one might even grow into the other. 

What other features are on the cards for Bumble? Can we expect to see it continuing to evolve in 2023? 

There's always really exciting developments coming down the pipeline, we've just launched some self-care products in app, which includes Interest Badges, which allow people to say they are interested in therapy, or mindfulness or nutrition. You can even indicate if you are passionate about  a good night's sleep or having a deep chat. We also have Profile Prompts like, ‘something I learnt today’ or ‘something that was helpful in therapy recently’, and I think that's really exciting because we have been speaking so much about mental health and self-care and what people do, and who's in therapy or who should be in therapy. Mental health is a really interesting one because there is still a little bit of a stigma around that, people don't necessarily want to ask if someone is in therapy the first time they have a conversation or what they do for self-care. The idea for these badges and Profile Prompts is that they  those conversations easier, you can signal to someone that you're interested in these things and they can match with you knowing that they can ask about it. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

It’s just a really exciting time for Bumble, as we move further from the pandemic people are more open to going on in person dates. What is really interesting is that a lot of people's attitudes have permanently shifted, we see people drinking less for example. The ideal first date pre-pandemic was probably to go to the pub or a bar and that isn't really happening as much anymore. People are more likely to get a coffee or go for a walk in the park. For some people, that's really anxiety-inducing, but I think it can set you up for a much better connection. When you think about it, if you are drinking at the pub you're probably missing some of the smaller details, you probably don’t get to know each other as well as you would sober, especially if there’s 100 other people packed in beside you. 

I completely agree with that. I had had my time on all the apps and every first date was at a wine bar and I was probably pretty tipsy, it never worked out. My first sober date was during the very first lockdown, we had to sit in the park two metres apart in masks but we ended up having such an amazing time and there was clearly something in that because nearly 2 years on he’s still my boyfriend! 

Exactly! If you are sitting in daylight, sober, spending time with someone, it is  a much more vulnerable experience.  Not everyone feels ready to do that, but it gives you a much better idea of who someone is and if they're worth investing a second date in. Our mission has always been to create, or facilitate healthy and equal relationships. When Bumble began it was before social movements such as  ‘Me Too’ and ‘Time’s Up’, and Whitney was really at the forefront of this kind of thinking, so how we continue that mission into the future is really exciting. A lot of people believe that gender equality is kind of done. It is not. Often when we survey our audience, they will tell us that while relationships are more equal these days, and that traditional gender roles can hold you back in a relationship, they're very easy to fall into. For us it is about demonstrating that our mission to empower women is just as relevant today as it ever wasIThere are so many examples across the world that show us that this is the case Non-binary and Trans people are absolutely included in our mission, and you don't have to look very far to see ways in which those communities are suffering right now, and they need our support. There's so much more work to do in ending misogynistic gender roles, and tearing down these patriarchal constructs. We're really excited to be part of that journey.