Online dating has a problem. Exactly what the problem is depends on whom you ask, but it’s either the men or the women. For men, online dating is a thankless grind of making approaches and being rejected. For women, it’s a hellscape of male entitlement and unsolicited penis pictures. Men do a lot of liking and make barely any matches; women like less often, and get more matches in return. And, crucially, neither side of this situation will ever see what the other one goes through.
The gendered experience of using a dating app is so disparate that you can perhaps best think of it as one platform occupied by two overlapping worlds: each invisibly shapes the other’s existence. It’s bleak-sounding, but it’s also unavoidable if you’re looking for a hookup or a partner—dating apps overtook introductions through friends as the main way for heterosexual couples to meet in 2013, and the pandemic has only entrenched that by removing practically all opportunities for casual in-person contact.
An evolutionary-psychology perspective says that this is inevitable. Men are born to play the field, while women go picking and choosing, and what we see in dating apps is only a reflection of those tendencies. But the entrepreneur Whitney Wolfe Herd had an inspiration. What if the problem with dating was actually a design problem? What if you could code the sexes out of their miserable détente?
Her solution was Bumble, which has proved to be one of the great recent success stories of business. The dating app claims 42 million active monthly users and is now Tinder’s main rival. Bumble’s initial public offering, in February, made the 31-year-old Wolfe Herd the youngest woman to take a company public as well as an instant billionaire. (She is also the world’s youngest female self-made one, an honor that before her had gone, not uncontroversially, to Kylie Jenner.)
Bumble’s users skew young, with 72 percent of them under 35, and it’s been at work spreading into India—with Priyanka Chopra as spokeswoman. Other spokeswomen range from Serena Williams to Tiffany Haddish. The dating app launched a magazine, also called Bumble, recruiting a former Vogue editor to run its branding, and even took over a series of Manhattan bodegas, serving free food and merch to customers with Bumble accounts. If there were ever a Bumble moment, this would be it.
Bumble’s unique selling proposition is also its go-to marketing line: Women make the first move. When a man and a woman match on the service, only the woman can open a stream of communication. The app also has stringent policies on nudity and abuse, and allows users to verify that they are who they claim to be. (In a P.R. gift, Sharon Stone tweeted that Bumble had blocked her for being an imposter; she was quickly reinstated, and the app was christened as both desirable and diligent.)
This is all very welcome, if my research forays on other dating sites—which in a very short time gathered several invitations to deliver oral sex and a scattering of men calling me “bitch” when I didn’t R.S.V.P. promptly—are anything to go by. With its cheerful yellow color scheme and accessible interface, Bumble feels genuinely nice to use. None of the men I spoke to were anything other than courteous, even when I explained I was wasting their time for the sake of an article.
Bumble is a respite from the frenetic meat-market vibe of Tinder. (In addition to dating, it offers a friend-matching service called BFF and a professional network called Bizz.) It doesn’t demand the investment of Hinge, which requires you to engage with particular pictures or details of someone’s profile in order to connect with that person. And it’s epically easygoing compared with OkCupid, which asks users dozens of questions so it can match them in granular detail according to their opinions on issues such as abortion rights, environmental policy, and gun control.
Which is not to say that Bumble is an apolitical proposition. Feminism is very much central to the Bumble message. When the company launched in India, it framed the expansion as “investing in women” for “social transformation and economic growth,” rather than as making inroads into one of the world’s largest mobile markets. The company also successfully lobbied the Texas state legislature to make the sending of unsolicited nudes a specific offense.
But for users, Bumble’s feminism comes less as specific activism and more as a pervasive sense of empowerment, one embodied by its founder. As much as the software, Wolfe Herd is integral to the Bumble brand. She is the public face of the company, approachably beautiful and glossily blonde and always dressed in the canary yellow that has become the brand’s signature. Announcements on the Bumble Web site are signed off personally with the initials “WWH.”
Wolfe Herd nails the details. In a March Time profile of her, there’s a throwaway mention of the fact that the suit she wore for the I.P.O. was “on loan from Stella McCartney”: you can only applaud the kind of genius which both recognizes Stella McCartney as the perfect designer for the young, upwardly mobile female user Bumble wants to attract, and knows that a designer suit is more relatable when it’s borrowed rather than owned.
Bumble’s feminism comes less as specific activism and more as a pervasive sense of empowerment, one embodied by its founder.
Not only that, but Wolfe Herd has a dream of a story, especially in the age of #MeToo. It goes like this …
In 2012 Wolfe Herd was one of the co-founders of Tinder, helping to market the app on college campuses. She started dating fellow co-founder Justin Mateen. Two years later, she filed a sexual-harassment suit against the company, alleging that Mateen (by then her ex) had called her a “whore” in a meeting.
Match Group, Tinder’s parent company, denied wrongdoing, reportedly settling with Wolfe Herd for $1 million plus stock. The agreement prevents her from discussing her time at Tinder, but it didn’t include a non-compete. She launched Bumble in 2014—not just a feminist user experience but a revenge fantasy turned $16 billion stock listing, a 9 to 5 as corporate entity.
There is a wrinkle in the perfect yellow fabric, though. In order to establish Bumble, Wolfe Herd needed a partner, and she found one in Russian billionaire Andrey Andreev. (In fact, he found her, approaching her after her exit from Tinder.) Which made it a significant problem when, in 2019, Forbes ran a detailed investigation alleging that Andreev had overseen a culture of sexual harassment at Bumble’s then parent company, Badoo. (Andreev denied the allegations.)
Worse, Wolfe Herd’s initial response was out of kilter with her #MeToo credentials: “He’s become my family and one of my best friends,” she told Forbes when asked about Andreev, stating that she had never witnessed any of the alleged toxic behavior. A few months after the Forbes investigation, Andreev sold his shares to Blackstone, and Bumble was once again pristinely female-friendly. Much of the subsequent coverage of Wolf Herde and Bumble’s I.P.O. didn’t even mention him.
Whitney Wolfe Herd has a dream of a story, especially in the age of #MeToo.
It’s a fine line for any girlboss to tread. Look at the Wing, which launched with a boom in 2016 as a chain of women-only work spaces under the leadership of Audrey Gelman. Like Wolfe Herd, the Wing founder looked Insta-gorgeous and talked a good feminist game. And like Bumble, the Wing was propelled by the energy of #MeToo. (Its chosen color: millennial pink.)
Then, in 2020, it all fell apart. “The complaints varied in their details,” the Cut explained, “but often arrived at the point that the Wing, while presenting itself as feminist, was ultimately about money.” Gelman resigned as C.E.O., and the company was later sold off.
One reflex here is to defend Gelman: What businessman would ever have to justify wanting to make money? But it’s also true that she’s the one who brought feminism into it, and a particular, very 21st-century brand of feminism that championed inclusion and equal opportunity for all women. Inevitably, those who couldn’t pay to be there would be excluded.
Wolfe Herd has, so far, managed to balance the tensions of image and product. Her high-profile Tinder suit has overshadowed any Andreev-related P.R. snafus. And while everyone knew the Wing charged $250 a month to use its spaces, Bumble markets itself as free. (“Bumble is free, and always will be!”)
Its range of premium options, which, for $7.99 a week, allow users to see who liked them and increase their chances to match with someone, are hidden enough for its marketing to hold, but easy enough to have converted 1.2 million users to some form of payment—all while championing the Wing’s same ideals of feminism, empowerment, and inclusivity for all. (Most curiously, recent data from Android users suggests Bumble’s girl-power dream is serving a user base that is 73 percent male.)
For women, Bumble solves the problem of men, but it does it even better if you pay up. Is that feminism? So long as it works, I doubt any woman will really care.
Sarah Ditum is a London-based journalist