Last month, Twitter took flak for its latest bout of inertia when the platform opted not to permanently ban Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. It was yet another show of Twitter’s reluctance to forego a facade of neutrality—and seemingly at odds with Twitter’s decision to ban figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and take harassment and misinformation more seriously.
It’s a response we’ve come to expect from social networks like Twitter and Facebook, which have been plagued by accusations of anti-conservative bias. But there’s one social networking app whose goal has never been neutrality, even at the risk of alienating users. “When I started the company, I really founded it with one main objective in place, which was accountability,” says Bumble cofounder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd. “How could we engineer accountability into the internet? How do we make the internet a kinder place?”
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Bumble, which started in 2014 as a dating app on which women made the first move, has since expanded to encompass professional networking and the “BFF” mode, for women who want to find new friends. (Wolfe Herd, a cofounder of Tinder, started Bumble after filing a suit against Tinder alleging sexual harassment; earlier this year, Tinder’s parent company Match Group sued Bumble for patent infringement.) Since its inception, the app has taken steps to protect its users, even going so far as to block—and shame—a male user who lashed out at a woman who messaged him.
But take a look at Bumble’s guidelines, and it’s clear the app isn’t just fighting harassment. In 2016, Bumble introduced rules around posting mirror selfies or photos of children. “The new photo moderation rules aren’t our effort to be the prude police,” Bumble wrote. “Rather, they’re a way to ensure everyone has the experience we’ve promised: a safe, friendly place to meet new people. Bumble is not a place to act differently than you would IRL.”
And earlier this year, Bumble made a particularly controversial call to ban photos of guns from its platform. “It shocked a lot of people, but for us it was just a no-brainer,” Wolfe Herd says. “It was just a natural progression of us trying to live our values.” Perhaps in part due to where Bumble is headquartered—in Austin—the response was intense. Bumble had security in its office for weeks, and Wolfe Herd received threats, as did other employees. “I was mentally prepared for what we would encounter,” Wolfe Herd says, nodding to the online harassment she faced when she sued Tinder. “That’s not the first time we’ve had to have serious security on high alert around our office.”
It was not something Bumble did lightly. “I don’t make these decisions singularly,” Wolfe Herd says. Bumble employees were asked via Slack how they felt about banning gun photos before anything was decided. “We created a safe, anonymous space for them to share their thoughts, and we debated,” she says. “Were there some people who disagreed? Sure. Everyone had their own personal perspective.” Now, Bumble has about 5,000 moderators around the world who enforce the company’s new guidelines within a reasonable time frame. “Do things fall through the cracks? Could we do better? Yes, but that’s just the nature of scaling,” Wolfe Herd says.
But what about responsible gun owners—people for whom shooting may be a hobby? Wolfe Herd realizes that is trickier to navigate. “We’re not trying to say that we’re preventing anybody that behaves in a responsible way with the proper licensing to be on our platform,” she says. “We truly believe that using weapons as a mechanism to attract a date is not right, and we don’t believe in that. We don’t want to validate that.”
She also insists this isn’t a decision made along political lines. “We’re a platform that welcomes everyone as long as they’re in line with our values,” she says. A Bumble user whose interests include shooting can still share that in their profile, so long as they don’t include a photo. Wolfe Herd says Bumble is also considering features that would help offer up more information on preferences and interests, since some users may want to know if someone spends time on the shooting range before swiping on them.
Wolfe Herd believes Bumble is the rare platform in the social networking space that has led the charge on what she calls the “kindness movement.” If other platforms are finally stepping up, she says, it’s only because the media has forced their hand. “The only way to make an impact and difference in this world through technology is to make sure you’re adding value for the user,” she says. “And when you allow a user to be harassed or abused, you’re taking value away.”
For Wolfe Herd, living out Bumble’s values trumps its bottom line. But she wants to make clear that she is no less interested in scaling her product or being profitable. “I want this to be an inspiration to the next wave of female founders,” she says. “They can build something mission-driven and still be successful. They can take the right approach and still win and survive. I think this should serve as proof that you don’t have to be either a nonprofit grassroots company, or this big corporate behemoth that only cares about the bottom line. There’s room in the middle, and Bumble is proof of that.”