Dating apps are used by a lot of Australians. The stats actually might come as a bit of a shock, but in 2021, there were 3.2 million users of apps such as Tinder, Bumble, Grindr and Hinge. And while their popularity is continuing to grow, so too are the safety concerns both on, and off, the apps.
In an increasingly crowded market, two Australian women are taking a safety-first approach with their new dating app to be a differentiator – one that also blends a bit more of the offline world with the online world.
Ziinkle was founded by Melanie Leahy and Elisse Alexander. What do they bring that founders of other dating apps don’t? A background in marketing and lived experience (or rather disappointment) of using a dating app. Oh, and a very welcome male-free hivemind.
Leahy and Alexander consider themselves trained to understand the customer problem. And oh boy, with dating apps, where do the problems end?
In early 2019, Leahy found herself downloading Bumble and Hinge, and much to her frustration, her matches weren’t quite what she was expecting. As I, and I’m sure many of you have experienced, how the actual shit do you sell your whole self in one picture that appears before a potential suitor in merely seconds? Problem number one. So a fix, they thought, was going out to meet people. With lockdowns starting in 2020, then rules around capacity limits for bars etc in force once restrictions eased, the next problem was: where would a potential match even be?
Compiling Instagram data of ‘hotspots’ for potential matches was then a whole other debacle. Then there’s the approaching someone thing, which, as an introvert, that’s a straight up ‘nope’. As restrictions are all but fully eased, Ziinkle is looking to capitalise on our desire to make real-life connections, but via the comfort of an app.
Yep, that’s right, IRL. Here’s how Ziinkle works
There’s no denying dating apps are very superficial. You’ve got merely a few seconds to catch your potential suitor’s attention before they decide whether you’re worthy or not of a right swipe. And, as Leahy explains, behavioural science tells us that people aren’t very good at articulating what we actually want until we experience it in person.
After downloading and setting up your profile, you’d decide on an area you want to go out in, then, using Ziinkle’s Venue Search feature, you search that area and a map populates of where people are that match your search criteria (for example, 30-40 years old, non-drinker). The results will show X amount of people matching your search criteria are at venue A, in real time. All you can see are numbers, not profiles.
Ziinkle uses Google hospitality data, so you’re completely safe at home. But once you get to the venue, you can choose three modes of visibility: ‘incognito’, which means you’re not even on the app, you just walk in and do what you need to do and have your fun girl’s night; ‘anonymous’ which just shows you as a number, but your profile characteristics are visible; and ‘visible’, allowing you to be seen by others on visible, too.
If you’re on visible you can either just approach people as you normally would or you can send a little ping that will say you’re interested. If they’re interested, too, you’ll get a return ping. You then agree to meet up, say, by the pot plant to the left of the bar.
“You’ll have that moment where you connect eyes, and if it’s good, you’ll know there’s a connection there. If not, you can walk away,” Alexander explained.
There’s also the swiping feature that all dating apps just have to have, because we don’t go out 24/7. But with a twist – Ziinkle is hoping to un-gamify this whole thing.
Un-gamifying the dating app game
“[You end up] burnt out and disheartened and feeling like digital commodities, because it’s just so difficult to make a connection with someone in a digital profile,” Leahy explained, noting the flow on effects to someone’s social well-being, mental health and communication skills.
It also doesn’t help dating apps mimic games so much. When Tinder launched, the proposition around the app was that it was a game. So it comes as no surprise that that’s how dating apps feel.
“They give you a level of dopamine that you actually get from poker machines … that’s how harmful they can be,” Alexander explained. “You find a match, you’re happy, and then you want that response again. And they hold back matches until you pay – they do things to keep you on the apps and they don’t really care what happens after you actually match with someone on their platform.”
More on that in a second. But actually having the goal of meeting someone in real life, you’re not going to be sitting there swiping for that dopamine hit (at least not as much), you can clearly see just how much better for your mental health the proposition of Ziinkle actually is. Even the turnaround from chatting to meeting. Ooft.
Let’s talk about safety
While it’s not Leahy or Alexander’s responsibility if I meet someone through Ziinkle and I don’t like them or I feel unsafe in their presence, it still kind-of is, right? Because their app is responsible for me meeting ‘David’.
During Senate Estimates last October, Australia’s eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant was asked about the then-upcoming Online Safety Act and the grey area that exists between the responsibility of the platforms and law enforcement, as well as her office.
The Online Safety Act gives eSafety sweeping new powers, such as the now-live Adult Cyber Abuse scheme and a bunch of requirements (the Basic Online Safety Expectations, or BOSE) for platforms to follow. This (in theory) should cover online abuse and threatening content on dating apps. But this is all for online content. Law enforcement take over when it comes to the IRL world – providing, of course, someone makes a complaint or reports an issue.
During Estimates, Senator Louise Pratt asked one simple question: Does rape facilitated by a dating app fall under the scheme?
eSafety’s position was that it would be more appropriately dealt with through law enforcement. The BOSE could go some way to ensuring assault doesn’t happen in the first instance but eSafety isn’t empowered to act against perpetrators facilitating sexual abuse through a dating app, only if that person is distributing material that is image-based abuse.
So whose responsibility is it?
After matching with David on Ziinkle, and meeting up with him at the bar, then hypothetically leaving with him and an assault happens, David unmatches me and deletes his profile – what do I do?
Leahy tells me they purposely built in a security feature to combat that problem.
“You still have access to his profile and chat history for 30 days. So, if you need to take action you’ve got photos as a reference, you’ve got conversations as the reference,” she said, confirming that is even after David has unmatched you.
“So if you feel like you need to take any action with authorities, we want to give you that support and something that’s instant.”
On other dating apps, if something bad happens you have to send an email to a generic inbox and someone will pick it up after three to six weeks. That’s a lot of time, especially when someone could be reliving the trauma every day until a generic response is received from a platform.
“As much as we’d love to control people’s behaviour and hope everyone has the best intentions, it’s just not the reality of it, and I really think that’s the benefit of being female founders,” Leahy added. And 100 per cent.
A lot of other dating apps out there are ‘built by dudes who want to get chicks’. And I’m putting that the nicest way possible. That’s how Facebook was started, right?
Of course there’s still a balance in all of this. Privacy of Ziinkle’s users is still the priority, Alexander added. It also raises the issue of abuse via text, which AI can only go so far to detect. It’s an industry-wide issue, not one specific to a dating app.
“We have a zero tolerance for any sort of bad behaviour on the platform and we want a cultivate a community of really respectful Ziinklers that understand consent, that are respectful of others and that – just nice people,” Alexander said.
If you’re out with friends and duck over to another table for an hour to have a chat with a Ziinkle match, your support network isn’t far away – there’s no denying that’s got to add a bit of security. Oh, and with the proposition of the app being to meet someone within minutes of matching/chatting, good luck catfishing someone, too.
“We will show the world that we are not about games. We care about what happens the whole time,” Alexander adds.