WLTM Bumble – A dating app where women call the shots

It’s 4am on a Tuesday when my phone pings. Still in the depths of sleep, I reach out and grab it, knocking a cold cup of coffee over the unread mountain of books on my bedside. I swear loudly, mop up the mess with one hand and look blearily at the message on my screen. It’s from Otis, 27, who I have apparently just matched with on Tinder: “Hey sexy like ur curls. Wanna come over n get naked and I’ll show you my curls.”

And that was the day I deleted Tinder.

There is no denying that the pursuit of love in the 21st century has become littered with digital landmines. There are now more than 91 million people around the world on dating apps – and most of that is thanks to Tinder. The first dating phone app of its kind, Tinder arrived on the scene in 2012, first in US colleges before spreading outwards, nationally and internationally, from Rome and London to Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town. The concept itself was simple – make people’s image front and centre, emulating how we first encounter people in real life, and ensure only people who have mutually approved each other’s profiles can start chatting. And finally, make it as simple and addictive as a game.

Thanks to humanity’s universal enjoyment of passing aesthetic judgment on others, the app has grown at a phenomenal rate. In January it was reported that Tinder makes 21 million matches and processes 1.5 billion swipes every day – as of the start of this year, it had made 5 billion matches.

But it has also emerged as a place where women regularly have to put up with the kind of sexist, vulgar and aggressive messages that, if said in real life, would see you instantly shunned as a pervert. Entire websites, blogs and even books have sprung up – such as the Instagram accounts tindernightmares.com and ByeFelipe – documenting the daily obscenities received, unprompted and unwanted, by millions of women. They can range from the relatively harmless (“I am sensing that you have magical boobs”) to the aggressive, with words such as “slut” bandied about freely.

The founder of Bumble at Perla’s restaurant in Austin, Texas. Photograph: Jeff Wilson for the Observer

Indeed, during the 48 hours I dabbled with the dating app, Otis’s 4am message – while proving the straw that broke the camel’s back – was on the tame end of the scale. Even my male friends acknowledge it happening among their peers. Speaking to Oliver, 26, he recounted how he had been sitting with a friend who, flicking through Tinder, had matched with two girls in quick succession. Instantly he sent them both a pornographic message. I’m appalled, I say. What kind of person is he? “Oh, a really nice guy, just come out of a seven-year relationship. He’s really quiet and likes krautrock,” says Oliver. Why the messages then? Oliver shrugs. “Because he can, I guess. It’s horrible, but no one’s going to call him out on it.”

Much of the blame for the unpleasant experiences had by women on dating apps has been put down them being mainly developed in the “boys-club culture” of Silicon Valley. It is an environment where only 11% of executives are women, an imbalance that seems to have filtered into the mindset of many dating apps. According to one developer, this has been perpetuated by the fact that dating sites and apps still make most of their revenue from men.

“The biggest problem is women have always been ignored as a customer group,” he said. “Because no one has ever addressed the creep factor, women are constantly chased off dating websites and apps. So from a dating company perspective, they know that women are very fragile on the site and so often can’t be monetised. Therefore men have always been the focus, which has just perpetuated the problem.”

However, the tide appears to be turning. A new generation of app developers, many of them women,

are launching a digital fightback through a wave of female-orientated dating platforms.

From apps where women are the

gatekeepers to initiating conversations, to others where men can only be invited by women, the movement to ensure digital dating is no less fun for women is quickly gathering momentum. And the woman leading the charge is not who you might expect.

I meet Tinder co-founder Whitney Wolfe in the airy surroundings of Perla’s restaurant in Austin, Texas, where lobsters and other edible crustaceans leer down at us from vast fish tanks. The chatty waiter who comes to take our orders opens with: “Howdy y’all,” in his friendly Texan drawl, and a stream of people dressed in cowboy hats, tassels and tie-dye filter past the window, on their way to the city’s famous South by Southwest festival. We are 1,242 miles away from Los Angeles, the home of Tinder, and 1,500 miles away from Silicon Valley, but frankly we could be in another world entirely.

Wolfe, 25, lives here partly because it is the home of her oil tycoon boyfriend, but also because it signifies a distance that is both physical and metaphorical between her and her former life. Last year, she found herself the reluctant subject of a notably unpleasant media furore after she launched a lawsuit against Tinder – the company she had worked at as both co-founder and head of marketing for almost three years. Her complaint was sexual harassment and discrimination against fellow co-founders, Justin Mateen and Sean Rad, alleging that when her romantic relationship with Mateen turned sour, he had sent her a stream of “horrendously sexist, racist, and otherwise inappropriate comments, emails, and text messages”. After Rad allegedly refused to deal with the situation, and even threatened to fire Wolfe, she resigned from the company.

The resulting legal showdown – which was played out entirely in the public eye last summer – proved nasty and malicious, bringing out the worst in Silicon Valley’s notoriously misogynist culture. “Oh the irony,” screamed the internet. “The founder of a hook-up website is claiming sexual harassment.”

Wolfe’s role in setting up Tinder was called into question by Mateen and Rad, and the stream of vindictive texts Mateen had sent to her was published online.

The saga was eventually settled out of court last September with no admission of wrongdoing from either party. Wolfe was given a reported $1m settlement and stock in the company, while Mateen left his executive role at Tinder, closely followed by Rad.

Open, warm and endearingly verbose, Wolfe becomes a closed book at the mention of Tinder: “The lawsuit was not about money, that is not what motivates me and it is not how I find fulfilment,” she says. “But I felt I had played an important role at Tinder and they tried to erase me from the company’s history. It was about being recognised for my work.”

She sighs. “Look, the Tinder story is very tired. I find it really upsetting that the lawsuit still defines my story and I’m qualified by what happened at Tinder rather than the fact I am now a successful female CEO of a tech company at 25.”

Indeed, it is this new venture that is the main reason behind our meeting. Bumble, which she set up just over six months ago, has swiftly established itself as one of the pioneering new dating apps designed to improve the experience for women.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem all that different from Tinder. Profiles are connected to your Facebook (to prevent the use of fake profiles you have to have a certain number of friends to sign up) and users can scroll through pictures, swiping left to dismiss and right to match up.

The game element that makes Tinder so addictive remains. But it has a few fundamental differences, mainly that once a match is made it is only the woman who can strike up the conversation. If they don’t talk to their match within 24 hours, the guy disappears.

The thought behind it, says Wolfe, is simple. Having spoken to so many women who had been put off dating apps by a constant stream of creepy, uninitiated and often abusive messages from men, there seemed an obvious need for a platform that offered some level of female empowerment in the digital dating sphere. Revealingly, Wolfe admits she has never once used Tinder.

I tell her I have some less admirable male friends who swipe right on everyone, without any discretion, just to increase their matches and chances of a hook-up. She nods. “That can be pretty common on certain dating apps. But Bumble gives the man a chance to not feel like the aggressor, and gives the woman a chance to take a little more control than society says is OK and steer the conversation from the beginning. This is all about women reclaiming that online dating space.”

Wolfe adds: “What we are trying to be is the radical first step, because if someone doesn’t then nothing will change. Bumble is about establishing equality. I can’t speak on behalf of the entire male population, but in my experience when a man feels rejected, or fears being rejected, they respond with aggression. So if we eliminate the rejection, what is there to be aggressive about?”

But before we get down to the nitty gritty of whether such an approach is attractive, or even viable, to the young single masses, I have to ask Wolfe why she would possibly want to get back into the world of dating apps? After everything that happened at Tinder, wasn’t she not tempted to retreat to a quiet corner of the world and just open a bookshop or take up gardening?

Wolfe laughs and shakes her head. It’s clear that for a born entrepreneur who, at 19, set up her own successful business at Southern Methodist University designing charity tote bags, gardening is not really on the cards. “It was a no-brainer that I would stay doing something in technology, but to begin with I didn’t want to go back into the dating space at all,” she concedes. “It was not even a thought for me.”

She was convinced otherwise by Andrey Andreev, the Russian entrepreneur who co-founded the billion-pound social network Badoo, which, while not enormous in the UK, has 250 million users worldwide. Having met Wolfe while she was working at Tinder, he got in touch with her last August to discuss a new joint business venture.

Whitney Wolfe. Photograph: Jeff Wilson for the Observer

Wolfe initially wanted to make a positive social platform “somewhere between Snapchat and Instagram” that would encourage only positive behaviour between young people online. Andreev loved the angle of social responsibility and empowerment, but persuaded her to channel the ideas back into the turbulent world of dating apps. And so Bumble was born.

Alongside turning the accepted social convention of men “always making the first move” on its head, part of Bumble’s raison d’être is championing that elusive concept of online accountability. It is most evident in its photo messaging. While matched users can send pictures to each other, each is watermarked with their name and photo, discouraging anyone from sending something (naked shots, for example) that they do not want screen-shot and forever attached to their identity online.

But does Wolfe agree that the fundamental flaw in dating apps so far is that they are built by men, operating in a highly sexist environment?

“In the past, women were brought in for perspective but they were not brought in to lead,” she says. “But as we know, getting her to give an isolated input is very different from putting it in her hands and letting her take charge.”

“It’s interesting, because there’s this age-old question of, ‘What do women want, what makes women tick?’ Well, it seems obvious – put a woman in charge and she will show you. And I think that is what we are beginning to see happen with apps like Bumble.”

She may well be right. Female empowerment in the world of dating apps now seems to be en vogue in the world of tech startups, and even Tinder, as part of its new subscription Plus package launched in March, has introduced new reporting systems to try to stop men behaving badly. This new generation of dating apps includes the controversial Lulu, where women can publicly rate men on everything from appearance to sexual performance, and The Grade, which lets users score each other on the quality of their messages and speed at replying, therefore hopefully weeding out any creeps.

I speak to Susie Lee, the creator behind another such “female-friendly” app called Siren, where a woman’s photos are hidden to men until she chooses to match with them.

Lee, who is a digital artist with a background in molecular biophysics, set it up less than a year ago because she felt the current models were unsafe and exposed, particularly for women. “If you allow women to control their photo visibility then it does two things very elegantly and quickly – one, it allows women to feel safer about navigating online socially and, two, it allows men to have a clear, more personal signal about who’s interested in them and puts a stop to those aimlessly aggressive interactions. It also stops people, be it your clients, your students, or your boss, seeing your full profile on the app, which women have also said was very important to them.”

Susie Lee, creator of the ‘female-friendly’ app Siren. Photograph: Joseph Freeman

The app’s “siren call” feature lets women broadcast temporary messages to all men or only a select few, encouraging spur-of-the-moment dates. While it is currently only available on the west coast of America, Siren has proved so popular it is expanding globally in the summer.

Even more interesting is Wyldfire, which proves it is not only women taking on the so-called “creep factor”. Brian Freeman and Andrew White set up the app last year after both came out of long-term relationships and quickly lost faith in Tinder.

“The bottom line was that your everyday girl was not super-enthusiastic about the prospect of using an online dating app to find a meaningful relationship, because it had just become associated with hookups and having to deal with creepy or aggressive behaviour,” said Freeman, 31. “But we didn’t think it needed to be that way. So we went and asked women: well, what do you want out of a dating app? It turned out be security, safety and enough information to make a decent decision. And the best way to do that in our minds was to have the women vet the men.”

Wyldfire’s initial unique selling point is that only men invited by women could be a part of the app, though it has recently introduced an “election” feature where men can offer themselves up, without the recommendation of a female, to have their profile vetted by the women of Wyldfire who will decide if they should be let into the community. In a bid to get its members meeting up in real life, it has also limited the first interaction to 20 messages. “We’ve struck a chord,” said Freeman, citing the fact that the app has more than a 1,000 new members signing up every day.

“Our point is, how much better would it be for everyone if women did not expect to receive those disgusting one-liners?” added Freeman. “We wanted to re-create the better parts of life online and we don’t want to isolate men, or make them feel sub-par or a different class of citizen, because we are also guys. So we want women to feel safe and we want guys to feel challenged.”

An exemplary conversation from tindernightmares.com

Back in London, I am intrigued to see how my male friends respond to the idea behind Bumble. After all, for a successful heterosexual dating app, you need both sexes on board.

Wolfe had assured me that men love it and to prove her point she took me through the eligible men in Austin that Bumble has to offer, including several clean-shaven lawyers, a very muscly man called Wally, who seemed overly into hiking, and a trilingual artist. All impressive, but were they exceptions?

Fred, 26, who just came out of a three-year relationship, jumps at the concept of Bumble. “I hate the pressure of always having to make the first move,” he tells me. “And so many girls on Tinder seem so jaded by the whole thing and never reply anyway, it feels like a wasted effort.”

On my instruction he signs up to Bumble, starts swiping through the profiles and soon matches with a girl called Charmaine.

“Hiya hun, how are you?” she messages him not soon after. I don’t want to intrude, but I text Fred a few days later. So what’s the verdict on Bumble? Is it true love with Charmaine?

He texts back. “Charmaine happened to be into Comic Con. I am not. I wished her all the best, but not my cup of tea.”

“Ah well, Fred,” I reply. “Better luck next time.”

Which goes to show that while dating apps might be on their way to weeding out sexism, chemistry will be a harder problem to solve.



Here, women are given control of their visibility and are required to make the first move to create an online environment where they don’t feel unsafe. Profiles are built up over time from responses to daily questions generating a more accurate picture of people’s character.


This “men by invitation-only” app hopes to create a network of desirable gents. Women can sign up freely but men need to be invited by the female users in an attempt to reduce the number of “creeps”.


On the surface, Bumble seems similar to Tinder, but women hold all the power. The notorious swiping left and right remains. However, once matched, conversations must start within 24 hours or they will disappear and can only be initiated by women.


Somewhat brutally, The Grade lives up to its name and marks users from A+ to F depending on th eir popularity, quality of messages and responsiveness. Users need to make a D average or higher, or they will be banned from the app.


Women browse men’s profiles and invite any they like to play something similar to Blind Date. The first four men who agree are set three questions to answer. Any responses are kept anonymous until a winner is chosen by the female inquirer.


Users’ LinkedIn profiles are mined to provide potential matches considered professionally and educationally equal. Despite being criticised as elitist, the app has some merits. Only five individuals are presented to users per day, removing the “binge swiping” which is frequently associated with Tinder and other dating apps.


Designed to help you meet people whose path you have crossed, the app shows users within a 250-metre radius and tells you how many times you have been in the same area. You then hit the red love heart if you want to connect and wait to see if it’s mutual.


One way to ensure no unwelcome male attention is to use Dattch, the UK-based lesbian dating app. It allows users to upload pictures of themselves and also of things they like that can convey their personality.

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