Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Given that Mark Zuckerberg launched his social media journey with the controversial FaceMash, it seemed only a matter of time until the Facebook founder would venture into the world of online dating.

His Harvard project in 2003, a "hot or not" game for students, worked in a similar manner to Tinder, with users comparing profile pictures based on their looks.

What started out as a little fun "to occupy my mind" became a sensation, drawing praise from some and utter outrage from others. In what would become a recurring theme, Zuckerberg issued an apology at the time for "violating people's privacy" and "hurting people's feelings".

Now the entrepreneur is returning to his social media roots, announcing this week that Facebook will launch a dedicated dating service.

This time, however, the app will not be superficial. The 33-year-old billionaire's idea is that relationships should be formed through shared interests and friends.

In an apparent dig at Tinder, Zuckerberg said he wanted the feature to be about building long-term relationships and "not just about hook-ups".

Should rivals be worried?

The news sent shares in Match, the company that owns Match.com and Tinder, tumbling. And given the use of Facebook by its rivals, you can see why.

Tinder's reliance on Facebook was exposed last month when Zuckerberg's company tweaked its privacy settings amid the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The change sparked panic among Tinder users, many of whom log into their dating app account via their Facebook profile.

Nor is Facebook used only for logging-in purposes. When people sign up to dating apps such as Tinder, they can immediately import photos from Facebook, and use it to automatically fill in details for their profile.

Tinder users can even see when a potential match has friends in common with them on Facebook. Already having all this information seems to give the social media giant a significant advantage over its rivals.

And the fact that Facebook's offering will likely be free - as opposed to most dating apps that make money by charging users for premium services - means rivals will face even stiffer competition.

"There is a high likelihood that Facebook will become a central player in online dating," said Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a social media expert at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

"I think that there will always be people who seek out other forums for more specific searches, but with Facebook as the most popular social media site, its sheer volume of users will make it an obvious choice."

Professor Katina Michael, a privacy expert at the University of Wollongong, 80km south of Sydney, agreed that Facebook's potential was "humungous", given that it has more than 1.2billion active users.

What about privacy concerns?

Facebook will have to overcome ongoing privacy concerns. Last month, it admitted that up to 87 million of its users may have had their data hijacked in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Zuckerberg said the dating tool was built from the ground up with privacy and safety very much in mind. But that may not be enough to convince those who deleted, or considered deleting, their accounts amid the furore.

"We are already seeing a chilling effect take place when Facebook is mentioned in conversation," Michael said.

However, she also pointed out that most people would say "now that it's out, it is business as usual".

Rosewarne agreed there were "some valid apprehensions about inviting Big Data into our bedroom", but noted that Facebook was "under the covers already".

She said: "For most Tinder users, Facebook is the gateway, and for anyone surfing porn without logging out of Facebook, it's best we recognise now that Mark Zuckerberg is well aware of all your kinks and perversions."

Fears of more harassment

Among the concerns that have been raised over the prospect of a Facebook dating service is the potential for further harassment.

Could potential or rejected partners send unsolicited nude photos to a user's Facebook Messenger or target their regular account?

"Facebook already recognises it has a problem regarding bullying and harassment on the site: expanding into dating certainly might exacerbate this," Rosewarne said.

However, she pointed out that female users in particular already experience this problem on other dating platforms and that Facebook might be better equipped to deal with the scourge.

"With Facebook under such close scrutiny at the moment, moving into dating might see [them] become more proactive than they [already] are," she added.

Is it even necessary?

Zuckerberg said many people already find love via Facebook, which raises the question: do they really need a dating service?

"Changing social mores around dating and sex, evolving attitudes around the use of technology to find intimacy, and the social reality that we're increasingly less likely to be joiners ... [mean] the time is right for Facebook to enter the love business," said Rosewarne.

"Doing so can ... keep people in the platform's orbit a little longer and potentially expand the user customer base."

- The Daily Telegraph, London

 

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