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The internet is moving to video, but dating apps choose to arrive fashionably late

Everyone wants to be Snapchat, except your dating service

Illustrations by Alex Castro

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Those seeking love aren’t want for options — at least when it comes to dating apps. Dozens of services now let users connect with others based on religion, sexuality, race, hobbies, specific sexual interests, or even just a love of bacon. Dating apps, eager to differentiate themselves, are quick to try new trends. But when it comes to the biggest push in social media — video — options are curiously lacking.

The majority of the most popular dating apps — like Tinder, Happn, and Hinge — don’t allow users to share or upload videos. Even newer apps, like Hater or Wingman, stick to photos. The limitation is at odds with the flood of video onto Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook, following the rise in popularity of Snapchat.

The problem isn’t necessarily a general aversion to video dating, which has been around longer than smartphones and the internet. Video-dating services enjoyed popularity in the ‘80s, when suitors would record personal profiles on VHS tapes to be sorted and distributed to potential matches by dating services.

Clips of these cringe-worthy videos exist online today, where subjects speak directly into a camera about who they are and what they’re looking for. “I’m an executive by day and a wild man by night,” says one in a video cut together by The Found Footage Festival. “I’m looking for the goddess,” waxes another, rose in hand. “Are you the goddess? Who is the goddess? The goddess is the woman, is a woman, is any woman, is all women.” The archive alone offers one answer to why video dating apps haven’t taken off: do we want our pining to be public?

“You’re showing your flaws, your personality, the real you”

That hasn’t deterred investors and entrepreneurs. Startups have tried for decades to update video dating for modern audiences. The most prolific botched video-dating platform is hidden in plain sight. When Jawed Karim co-founded YouTube, it wasn’t meant to be a space for internet personalities and funny cat videos. It was a dating site. The slogan: “Tune in, Hook up.” These days, YouTube is only interested in the former.

As dating services have moved on to smartphones, many developers have tried methods for incorporating video: speed dating, recorded clips, direct video chatting. Earlier this year, TechCrunch reported that popular dating app Bumble was adding 10-second clips to its service, though it’s yet to be made available. But broadly, video hasn’t become a core feature for dating’s most popular services.

“I’ll admit it: video is scary,” says Behzad Behrouzi, who oversees product operations at Lively, a video-based dating app. “You’re showing off so much more of yourself than if you just posted a selfie. You’re showing your flaws, your personality, the real you — and that can be terrifying.”

Lively launched in 2016 under the umbrella of Zoosk, an online dating site and mobile app; Behrouzi also acts as the company’s senior vice president of product. In March, Lively introduced Quickies, a Snapchat-like feature that allows users to record short clips of themselves with frames and filters. Behrouzi says the company wants to people to have fun.  

The frames have more purpose than beautifying a self-portrait. Instead of posing stoically or fretting over what selfies to use in a profile, the app tries to encourage users to be performative with frames like “My Donald Trump impression.” It’s not the first thing that comes to mind for friendly and flirty, but it is, at the very least, a conversation starter. Why that face? What do you think of President Trump?

Behrouzi calls video dating largely uncharted territory, but points to Snapchat’s success as an admirable model. “You’re sending videos to friends,” he says. “With Lively, you’re posting/sending videos to people you don’t know, which can be intimidating.”

Staying safe online

Video has the potential to make the vetting process easier, says Marcel Cafferata, creator of 2012 video app Video Date. Cafferata says that the downside to apps like Tinder is that photos only offer a static look at that person. “You don't know if their voice is terrible, you don't know if they're readable,” he says.

Video can also act as a shield against the unknown. What do many online daters need to be wary of? Dodging the infamous trap of catfishing: people posing as someone else online. The general idea has long been a peril of the internet, but the phrase itself comes from a 2010 documentary Catfish. The film is a cautionary tale of a man developing a relationship with a woman online who’s not who she says she is.

In practice, confirming that people are who they say they are is something online spaces have already tackled in a variety of ways. Reddit’s popular AMA feature, for example, will often feature photos of celebrity posters holding up dated, handwritten signs. Services like Twitter use a stringent verification process, for those they see fit to award the notorious blue checkmark. Many dating apps already require connecting to Facebook — which, in recent years, has cracked down on fake accounts — to semi-verify someone’s ID.

But video may allow for an added layer of identity verification. Cafferata says that catfishing was the impetus behind Video Date. “I wanted to eliminate catfishing,” he tells The Verge. “I wanted to eliminate the fake profiles. I wanted to get people face-to-face so they can communicate, like a FaceTime, like Skype.”

It’s a trade-off: an awkward first FaceTime for the reassurance of confirming a suitors identity before your meet in person.

The complexities of video

As the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Instamour co-founder Jason Sherman and several other dating app creators recite this line of thinking to The Verge. Popular dating apps are managing just fine with ads, in-app purchase models, and subscription-based services. Implementing video requires time and money for development, QAing, and teaching users how to understand it. There’s no motivation to add a huge, costly feature as long as people are using their service.

Even if a business has the funds and capability to add videos to its service, there’s the concern of bad behavior, if not outright harassment by users. Harassment remains a problem for dating services. Social accounts like Bye Felipe have cataloged hundreds of users (primarily men) sending crude or threatening messages online and through dating apps. If an unwanted dick pic is gross, imagine the nightmare possibilities of video.

These dating companies have yet to find a silver bullet for video moderation, and so the responsibility often falls onto users.

Klip, like Instamour and so many others, uses moderation and user reports to remove inappropriate content from its dating platform. Founder Niko Porkka says the company doesn’t moderate klipping — the service’s one-on-one video interactions between users — out of privacy protection. The feature does allow users to report inappropriate behavior. Other apps, like Zoosk’s Lively app, discourage users from posting inappropriate content by linking it to their public identity. Users need a Facebook profile to use Lively, which means any combination of name, age, job, schools attended, and so on are displayed on someone’s profile.

Cafferata says Video Date suffered from moderation issues as well. He tried to implement facial recognition and use flagging to prevent users from uploading inappropriate content, but people still found a way around it. "No matter how creative I was to try and develop a way to eliminate or prevent, there was always a way someone was able to get around it or get into it and do that,” he says. “I did unfortunately have tons of nudity, and I had to, aside from the automatic elimination, I had to manually eliminate. It was more of the guys. The guys ruin it all, not the girls. The guys are the worst.”

The future of mobile dating

Cafferata claims he sold Video Date three years ago to a well-known basketball player, though the site’s contact hub still redirects to Cafferata’s email. Maintaining it became too overwhelming for him. The service hasn’t updated its site or social channels in years. "It was a timing thing,” he says. “I wanted to keep it, but the financial gain of it, I wasn't really gaining a lot at that point.”

Since Cafferata stopped running Video Date, he says the mobile dating scene has changed. He credits its popularity to Tinder, which he believes cracked the code with gamification and speed. "I think video chat, that would actually blow up and do very well,” he says of modern video dating. “I think today it would be 100 percent very popular, but they have to make it the right way that brings people to video chat, but also eventually want to meet.”

the lines between dating apps and social apps will start to blur

For now, video integration remains a risky and expensive novelty for dating services. But a year from now, it might be the new normal. When asked about the possibilities of video integration, a Tinder spokesperson declined to comment directly, but said it’s always interested in new ways to improve its experience.

Claire Certain, Happn’s head of Global Communications & Media, says the company is currently exploring augmented reality. Video isn’t something its users ask for, Certain says, and it would require a lot of moderation. “But given mobile consumption in the field of video, we are considering it, with great care,” she says, “to ensure that the content shared in-app fully complies with our engagement towards our users.”

Brendan Alper, creator of Hater, sees video becoming more prominent in years to come. People don’t know if they want it yet, but once they’ve got it, he thinks there’s no going back. “I think the lines between dating apps and social apps will start to blur, and I think video will play a big role in this happening,” Alper says.

“Obviously social apps have embraced video, and I think it's inevitable that dating apps will, too. The only question is when, not if.”

Correction: Claire Certain is the head of Global Communications & Media at Happn. This article originally identified her as part of Tinder as well.