Iamge: 123RF/ Daniel Ernst
Iamge: 123RF/ Daniel Ernst

With Facebook confronting calls to do more to protect user privacy as well as existential questions about its purpose in life, the company naturally used its F8 summit last week as an opportunity to cultivate an image as a less creepy presence in our daily lives.

No, wait, never mind: Facebook announced it is launching an online dating service.

The creatively named Dating application will let Facebook users create special profiles to employ in their quests for love and romance. Users who opt into Dating will be able to interact with and message each other on the platform, and will also be able to connect through shared events.

In light of Facebook’s various troubles — from allowing a political consulting firm to hijack user data to serving as a platform for real fake news — the Dating jokes write themselves. Even so, Facebook Dating might not be such a bad idea.

Making money in the online dating business isn’t easy. There’s built-in churn: If you match people successfully, then they leave the platform, taking with them any ad or subscription revenue they were generating. Customers can also be expensive to attract; if they leave soon afterwards, then it’s impossible to recoup the hefty acquisition costs.

Facebook, by contrast, can afford to have people stop dating so long as it learns things about them it can use to sell advertising on its main site. It can track couples from their first “likes” to the point at which they’re ready for engagement ring ads, and beyond. This means that Facebook could have better incentives than most dating platforms to help people find real relationships.

Customer acquisition might be easier for Facebook, too. The company already has an ad empire. And it is pretty good at predicting when you’re likely to break up with your romantic partner, so it can guess when you’ll be receptive to Facebook Dating ads.

Facebook also has a data advantage. Apps such as Tinder and Hinge use Facebook connections to identify potential matches. But those apps can only see their own users’ networks, so they’re missing most of the picture. Facebook, by contrast, can see almost everything. In particular, it can see non-daters’ full networks — a data set it’s hard to imagine any other dating service ever being able to access.

All that said, launching Dating won’t be a snap.

Like other apps, Dating promises not to match users with their Facebook friends; this means that Facebook’s most avid users might have less to gain by joining. Moreover, nothing announced so far suggests that Dating will mitigate existing services’ problems with misrepresentation, congestion and bad behavior.

The biggest problem, of course, is trust. Can Facebook safely maintain daters’ privacy? Even if it can, will people agree to turn yet more of their personal lives over to the Facebook platform — especially at this unique sociopolitical moment? Many have already expressed doubts.

And of course some would argue that the last thing we need is to spend more of our lives on Facebook.

So will Facebook’s inherent advantages in the online dating business be enough to overcome the platform’s numerous problems? It’s hard to say. A few of Facebook’s attempts to enter new product spaces have succeeded; most have been major flops.

But in the meantime, at least when people who connected on Facebook say that they “met through mutual friends,” we’ll know it’s the truth.

- Bloomberg