Friendster started with the same idea. So why is the reaction to Facebook’s version so much different?
Seventeen years after Friendster’s launch, another social media site is trying its hand at using our networks of friends and family to help us find a date. Facebook — the social media giant that essentially killed off Friendster — recently launched Facebook Dating as a tab within its app.
But where Friendster’s efforts to play matchmaker were greeted with curiosity and interest, Facebook’s have received a much chillier reception. A Vice review of the platform, which describes the service as “the announcement that nobody wanted,” deemed it to be “exhausting.” On Twitter, news of the platform’s U.S. launch was met with more jokes about data breaches and discomfort than actual interest.
How did we get from there to here? In a way, the difference between our collective reactions to Friendster and Facebook Dating tells an important story, one not just about evolving attitudes toward online dating but also about how social media has gone from a casual pastime to a utility that’s integrated — willingly or not — into nearly every aspect of our lives.
In 2019, our concerns about our digital dalliances are dramatically different than they were at the turn of the century.
Back in 2002, online dating was viewed with a heavy amount of suspicion. Although Match.com had been around for seven years, it was still seen as the domain of the desperate; even as people met, fell in love, and married thanks to online dating sites, there was a certain stigma to admitting you’d met that way. (A New York Times piece from 2003 bluntly summed up the era’s attitude toward finding a partner on a dating site in its headline, declaring “Online Dating Sheds Its Stigma as Losers.com.”) Friendster ported enough of the real world into digital space to eradicate some of that stigma. Sure, you were still using your computer to find a date, but the social network aspect helped it feel more like you were asking your friends (and their friends, and their friends’ friends) to help set you up.
But in 2019, our concerns about our digital dalliances are dramatically different than they were at the turn of the century. It’s no longer shameful to admit you’ve met someone online — to the contrary, it’s one of the most common ways people get together. Although catfishing is still a concern for some, the bigger fear is Facebook itself: how much of our data it has, what it’s doing with that information, and whether we can actually trust it to treat our privacy with the care and respect it deserves.
While Friendster was appealing because it used your offline network of friends to validate and vouch for internet strangers, Facebook dating is appalling because it wants us to merge our pursuit of romance with the rest of our online social network — which, at the end of the 2010s, isn’t composed of just a few internet savvy friends, but our colleagues, co-workers, family members, and elementary school classmates as well.
“Facebook really introduced [a sense of pervasiveness],” says Kat Lo, a visiting researcher at UC Irvine and content moderation lead at Meedan, a company that builds digital tools for global journalism and translation. She notes that Facebook routinely blurs the line between our digital and analog lives. “For many people, it is hard to keep things offline — even if you don’t have a Facebook account, your friends do. Geographic data, friend networks, and things like that reveal a ton about a lot of people, even if you’re not revealing a lot about it online.” Thanks to its habit of tracking us across the web, Facebook knows far more about its users than Friendster ever did — and the idea of the platform using its vast database of knowledge to manage our love lives is pretty unsettling, especially in an era of massive data breaches and monetized personal information.
There has also been a significant shift in how people use social media sites, one largely spurred by Facebook’s own policies. At the turn of the century, there was still a bit of separation between our online and offline selves; for many people, the internet felt like a private playground where you could explore a side of yourself that wasn’t fit for public consumption, where you could be a wholly different person from the one you were IRL. Sites like Friendster may have grounded that online self in a network of real-life relationships, but they still existed at a bit of a remove from our analog lives.
Facebook, on the other hand, makes it difficult to compartmentalize. It’s not merely that the site has a strictly enforced “real name” policy, one that can result in shuttered accounts and requests for users’ legal IDs if Facebook suspects a violation. It’s also that even though Facebook and Friendster ostensibly shared the same purpose of connecting friends, Facebook’s vast footprint means that for many of us, it’s also a place where we’re digitally linked to our family members, co-workers, and professional contacts — or, in other words, often the very people we don’t want seeing our dating profiles.
Facebook’s plan to be one app to run your entire life may seem appealing at first, but in reality, few of us actually want to present the same self to potential partners that we show to our co-workers, families, and friends. Facebook, Lo says, “doesn’t feel very compartmentalized. It doesn’t feel very separate.” Adding the often sensitive search for romance to the long list of tasks Facebook wants to take on for us “feels like too many things in the same place,” she says.
Even if Facebook maintains a rock-solid wall between the dating section and the rest of the app, there’s a discomfort to the idea of using the same app to see your cousin’s baby pics and to get your freak on. “You don’t want to shit where you eat,” Lo remarks. “Not just because it feels weird, but because it feels very easy to mix things up when they’re all mixed up in the same interface.” Friendster may have transformed online dating by porting a bit of our analog lives into the digital space. But 17 years later, our digital and analog lives feel uncomfortably fused — and for many of us, the real killer app is something that gives us a sense of freedom and space.