Pretend for a minute you are a brilliant tech entrepreneur who graduated from MIT and are certain you have a product with so much to offer—if only you could get the chance to show it to those that matter. The only problem is that no one will sit down to meet with you, an all-too-familiar frustration among technology entrepreneurs. Now imagine that the "product" you’re pitching isn’t an app or some connected gadget—it’s yourself.
That was the problem self-proclaimed nerd and MIT grad Brandon Wade was having. He knew he—and others like him—were a great "product" of humor and intelligence and kindness and love. Yet whether because of his looks or his nerdiness, he never seemed to be able to secure the first dates he knew he would only need to show a woman how much of a catch he was. That ultimately lead him to create Carrot Dating, the recently released—and highly controversial—app that allows users to bribe strangers with gifts for a first date.
Carrot Dating is the world’s first app in which users can offer bribes for a first date. The name comes from the familiar image of a farmer dangling a carrot in front of a stubborn mule to get it to move. If a bribe does interest a Carrot user, the briber must purchase credits to unlock a conversation with them. It takes 10 credits to unlock one conversation and credits can be bought in packs of 50 for $4.99. Members who receive a bribe can communicate for free.
"Growing up an MIT nerd, I learned that a nerdy smile and nice personality don’t exactly give women a good first impression compared to good looks," Wade tells me. "I realized later in life that certain intangibles, such as success, generosity, and security, are much more important than good looks. With Carrot Dating, anyone can now provide an ‘incentive’ for anyone to give them a chance."
The mere existence of an app that enables you to bribe women with gifts—anything from dinner and a movie to a tank of gas or a plastic surgery procedure—has resulted in an absolute explosion of outrage across the media over the last several weeks since the app launched. Indeed, many are calling it "shallow," "sexist," and "borderline prostitution." And—perhaps surprisingly to many of Carrot’s critics—Wade agrees with one of those accusations.
"Yes," he says when I ask him if the app is shallow. "But online dating is in itself shallow. Men and women decide to respond to each other based solely on superficial factors such as the attractiveness of his or her picture. The Carrot Dating app enables users to inject ‘generosity’ and ‘incentive’ into the equation. By doing so, I am hoping the app will encourage singles to go on an actual first date and to get to know each other beyond the shallow aspects of dating."
Of course, those that complain the app is shallow are its nicest detractors. Many feminist bloggers and technology journalists have likened the app to prostitution. The claim is something both I, who have researched sex trafficking and prostitution for over five years, and Wade find ridiculous.
"Prostitution in itself is the exchange of sex for money. Carrot Dating is far from prostitution," Wade says. "Rather, it creates the opportunity for a first date, and nothing more. The most accepted ‘bribes’ on the application are currently ‘flowers’ and ‘dinner.’ Those two offers alone are hardly enough compensation for a prostitute. Clearly, the majority of women on our app appreciate the generosity of the gift, not the gift itself."
While women have made leaps and bounds to gain equality in a male-dominated world, Wade points out that women still only make 77 cents to every dollar a man makes. He says this is part of the reason why money, or rather, "generosity," is such a big factor when they choose a partner. Indeed, far from being sexist or acting as a digital pimp, Wade says Carrot Dating is "simply another tool that enables men and women to influence and attract other singles."
To be sure, Wade may have brought some of the negative criticism of the app on himself by choosing some poorly worded copy in the PR text, including this gem: "Women love presents like dogs love treats. Any beautiful girl can be convinced to give you a chance, all she needs is a little incentive." And this one: "Give a dog a bone, and it will obey. Give a woman a present and she'll..."
Is it ever a good idea to compare women (or any human being) to dogs? No. But poor comparisons don’t mean the idea of the app is itself poor. After all, if Wade was so out of touch with how women operated, Carrot shouldn’t have the kind of usage statistics it does—indeed, it should be devoid of female users, when they are, in fact, the majority.
"Women users outnumber the men at a ratio of approximately two to one," Wade tells me. With Carrot’s user base sitting at 30,000 (a huge feat since launching in beta on October 1st), that means 20,000 of those users are women. Wade does admit, however, that of those offering bribes, men are the most prolific. Over 16,000 bribes have been sent via Carrot with more than 13,000 of those bribes coming from men while just a little more than 3,000 came from women. This equates to 77% of male users bribing for dates while only 23% of female users do.
The sexist and shallow allegations lobbed against Carrot are nothing new for an alternative dating app. The same allegations were fostered upon Tinder. And while there are merits in questioning the prospects of finding a long-term, loving relationship with someone you had to bribe for a first date, one could wonder if the outrage the app has created was generated because the app mimics real life too much.
After all, first dates often aren’t serious expeditions to find your "soulmate." They are manufactured events in which you present the best, idealized version of yourself to the person you are meeting in hopes of impressing them. That’s why we invite our love interest to nice restaurants or cool gigs on first dates. These aren’t places we go to every night of our lives—or indeed, would go to at all without a date—and they often act only as incentives to get the object of your desire to say "yes" to that first outing.
What Carrot does is shine a spotlight on the beginning of what innocent, non-committal dating is actually like—and that spotlight could be too harsh for some people because it makes the "bribe" the starting point instead of working it into the conversation as you normally would when you get the courage to ask someone out.
And while few of us would walk up to a love interest in real life and start out with a bribe offer for a date, few of us clearly have the courage to walk up to an attractive stranger we meet on the street and—knowing little to nothing about them—ask them for a date. Yet online dating allows us to do just that by make decisions based only on superficial qualities such as a profile photo and a brief description—and online dating is now socially acceptable, so why shouldn’t an app that is hyper-focused on one aspect of the first date be as well?
"Dating in real life can be superficial," Wade, who has been happily married for two years, says. This superficiality often leads to rejection, which leads those in the real world to take fewer chances. Wade argues that if an app can help remove some of the fear of rejection and help people to communicate more openly and honestly, that’s a good thing. "With Carrot, the point is to offer someone an incentive to go on a first date so you can show them the deeper side to your character. The best-case scenario is a man and woman meeting each other and falling in love because of the opportunity created by Carrot Dating."