As an unexpected and unintended consequence of the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, I, as an interaction design (IxD) researcher and instructor, have been intrigued by the resurgence of discussions around race and racism within online dating spaces. While I agree these environments should be devoid of racist behaviors and language, it’s also well understood they are spaces driven by user preferences — discrimination — of some sort, whether age, weight, race, body hair or other factors. But it’s the notion of race-based discrimination that is most often problematic.
On and offline, race-based discrimination of sexual partners is real, particularly in the primary use of these apps, which most often is facilitating a non-committal sexual hookup. Race-based preferences — regardless of how they individually evolved — exist.
The challenge, apart from users’ overtly racist expressions, is in interpreting the often-nuanced communication of racial preferences. For example, does a conveyed “no *insert race here*, just a preference” truly represent a statement of preference, or is it actually veiled racism?
That question is not only what makes navigating the gay app space frustrating and troubling for queer men of color — who are often at the receiving end of the discrimination — but also challenging for designers and developers of these spaces.
“The LGBTQ community prides itself on being diverse and inclusive,” argues Lenny Gerard in a May 2017 article, “so the app that our community spends countless hours on should be also.” Still, though, in light of reality — of the existence of race-based preferences — it remains unclear what reflects “diverse and inclusive” and what reflects “racist” in this context.
While many discussions have centered on debating an association between race-based sexual preferences and general racist attitudes, there’s been little debate examining what can be done from a design and development perspective.
Is it possible that an app for queer men can exist without fostering racism? Answering that question helps to uncover relevant design considerations and consequences — the racial politics — of hookup app design.
“While a dating app can’t solve racism, it can facilitate a less dispiriting dating experience for people of color,” says Steven Blum in a Vice article from last month.
Let’s examine some of those opportunities:
Increased Prominence of Community Standards
Some apps have strict guidelines against the use of racist language. Hornet, as an example, states that “racial remarks in profile text, headline text, user names and photos” are “NOT allowed on the profile name, headline, description etc.” Many have policies preventing users from posting or sending racially offensive material.
While these standards exist, they are often buried in an app’s usage guidelines or terms of service. Could these guidelines be more prominently placed within these spaces? Or could these standards be structured as some sort of “decency pledge”? While these strategies offer no guarantees, they do offer more visible support in encouraging more appropriate behaviors and interactions.
“Nudging” More Appropriate Language and Interactions
There are most definitely alternative ways for a user to convey a racial preference on gay apps. Could an app, from an interaction design perspective, offer “nudges” or “suggestions” in profile creation? As an example, consider the potential of “smart” autocomplete functions and features that offer suggestions for more appropriate language.
In addition, what about real-time suggestions offered by the app (e.g. the use of “filtering” options) by which a preference could be stated or communicated? These strategies could aid in reducing ambiguous language around preference and the associated problems of perception and interpretation of intent.
Use of Artificial Intelligence to Review Interactions
Analogous to Facebook’s use of artificial intelligence in fighting online terrorism, could AI be used within online dating spaces to flag racist language or interactions for review? By no means am I advocating a police state within these spaces, but if community standards are to be defined and enacted, AI could provide a means to facilitate enforcement.
The norms and conventions within online dating spaces are truly evolving, and they will continue to evolve, as they are often shaped by changing societal, cultural and political tides. Making these spaces more inclusive requires all.
Echoing Lenny Gerard once more, “We can do a better job of how we represent ourselves in the mad rush to connect.” While users, in their interactions, can be more mindful of the possible racist consequences of behaviors around preference, app designers can also play a more active role in structuring and mediating spaces that are not only responsive to the realities of the hookup but are less offensive and dispiriting for all.