A fun statistic real estate agents in Austin like to repeat is that 110 people move to Texas’ liberal oasis every single day. Add the affordable rent, burgeoning tech scene, indie-darling festivals, and myriad bars boasting nightly live music and it’s no surprise young people are flocking to Austin en such masse that it’s become America’s fastest-growing city.
All of which is to say: It shouldn’t have been this hard to make a friend.
Five months into moving here from Los Angeles, I’d made scarcely more friends than the two people I’d already known when I got here, having left all of my communities behind in New York and L.A. That’s the problem Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe, who found herself 26 and sans adult friends after she’d first launched the dating app, wanted to fix when rolling out Bumble BFF. The latest offering from the female-centric dating app allows users to find friends via the same double-blind concept of dating app stalwarts Tinder and Hinge, as well as Bumble itself.
Through a pastel green-hued version of Bumble’s normally yellow app, users can swipe through profile after profile of people (probably) not looking to get naked with eachother. Unlike Bumble’s dating policy where only women can message their matches first, either match can initiate conversation. Though the matched friendships are heteronormative—women can only match with women and men with men, saying nothing of genderqueer and non-binary users—the concept of being able to swipe your way into a perfectly engineered friendship is deceptively addictive; who doesn’t want to make friends without ever having to leave the house? My time on Bumble BFF was wholly enjoyable, mercifully free of modern mating rituals. But those frictionless friendships come with a tax of their own: the growing likelihood that with each swipe, we’re all getting just a little bit more racist.
Armed with a flagon of rosè, I settled in to test Bumble BFF shortly after its March rollout, with little idea of what making friends on an app entailed. Who messages whom first? Do I still need to edit down my responses so they don’t look like novels? Did I just accidentally flirt? I quickly learned that my barebones “mysterious” profile designed to seduce men wouldn’t cut it; women on Bumble BFF had no problem taking advantage of the full character count to describe themselves. I didn’t see a single profile that didn’t use at least one emoji. Popular hobbies included wine 🍷, brunch 🍳, day drinking 🍹, watching The Bachelorette 📺, and meeting other equally rad women 💃 💁 👯.
Heavily filtered selfies in perma-flattering soft glow were subbed out for photos with fake mustaches, wacky side ponytails, and even no makeup. Conversations took on a wildly different tenor as well; no cheesy one-liners, of course, but also no attempt to hide the sorts of heteronormative faves that aren’t admitted to men until well after the first date. After a day, I morphed my own vague, “mysterious” one-line dating profile into something far more earnest. Sure, I did it to fit in with the other women, but it was still refreshing as hell.
“Hi Beejoli! Are you watching the Bachelorette this season?” asked one user, a white 28-year old dental assistant turned stay-at-home parent, whose profile advertised that she was looking for friends to go to yoga or Pilates classes with. “I haven’t given up on Grey’s Anatomy yet either!” gushed a waifish brunette whose only photos were of her chugging from comically large wine glasses. “Are those the new Lululemon mesh leggings?! They’ve been sold out everywhere,” complained a toned, tan ballet instructor who had graduated from Notre Dame. Rather than the carefully curated self-image we’ve all found ourselves projecting on dating apps at one point or another, Bumble BFF had created a forum where women could find friends without having to be so performative. In short, Bumble BFF gave women a place to be basic.
The second wave of swipes was even better. GIF’d intros were still my bread and butter, but conversations quickly veered towards meatier topics like the tone-deafness of good ‘ol Texan boys and intersectional feminism. At one point I briefly debated not switching my Bumble BFF profile— now an exhaustive tally of my real love of avocado margaritas, my spin instructor, and Nordstrom’s return policy—when I returned to the dating side, but that safe space to be myself was non-existent on the dating side.
On its face, Bumble BFF appeared to be a worthy solution to my lack of friends in a new city. But the more I used the feature, the worse I started to feel about how I actually chose my friends.
📱 🐝 👯
The first problem came seconds into using Bumble BFF: If attractiveness has no effect on platonic friendship, why wasn’t I swiping right on everyone I encountered? Given the homogeneity of most women’s interests, including my own, the argument that “we have nothing in common” didn’t hold much water. Despite the fact that I constantly bemoaned the lack of diversity in Austin, especially as ostensibly liberal friends made offhand jokes about Indians that would normally never fly in other parts of the country, when I looked at my own BFF matches, the problem was compounded: Almost everyone was white.
Part of this was due to Bumble BFF users’ lack of diversity. Of 225 swipes in either direction, 143 were unambiguously white women. I was drowning in a sea of Beckys with the good hair. But I was still subconsciously eschewing those 78 women of color for the Beckys. Her photos were soft filtered to the high heavens, her blowouts perfectly voluminous. I was mortified, especially given the heterogeneity of my Benneton-ad IRL friend circle in New York. When I forced myself to dig deeper on what stuck out about the Beckys, the best I could come up with was a shameful “She looks like she went to college” that was quickly scratched out of my notes.
Am I racist and classist? Yes, probably. But I’m not the only one. Sociologists, journalists, and armchair analysts have long pointed out the unconscious racism apps like Tinder tend to tease out of their users. Unsurprisingly, white Western users find themselves disproportionately swiped right, especially in comparison to certain minorities, most often black women and Asian men. Apps like Bumble BFF may be a great way to make friends, but they also have a major bias problem.
To be fair to Bumble, a thing called “implicit bias” has been making us all a little racist since well before technology lubricated the process of finding friends. Sociologists contend that many of these biases are learned behaviors rather than just direct reflections of who we choose to be. Though harmful, implicit bias simply refers to the stereotypes that affect our cognition and choices in an unconscious way.
Take, for instance, the friendships kids choose to maintain even without the ease and proximity of school. Jennifer Flashman, a sociologist and data scientist who studies friendship networks, says that in this case, “Girls are more likely to be friends with girls; high performing students are more likely to be friends with high performing students; same race kids are more likely to be friends with each other.” Given that like attracts like, my own Bumble BFF swipe preferences started to make more sense. Lackluster Texas diversity or not, I barely had Indian friends of my own. My most diverse networks were ones that other friends had curated and I’d assimilated into. And all those soft-filtered photos with “good” hair and the keen eye to alma maters were just race and class markers that reflected my own upper middle class upbringing.
Flashman attributes much of that sorting to opportunity rather than preference. “It’s really hard to make a friend of a different race if everyone in your school is the same race as you, or if there’s even just one other person,” she says. Whether the homogeneity of friends is socioeconomic, racial, or linked to some other category (say, young saxophone players), friend groups subconsciously sorting by similarities is a sociological inevitability, and one that’s indoctrinated from a young age—which is why, even as adults, it’s so hard to break free of our unconscious biases.
And it’s getting worse over time. Even though diversity has become a call to arms lately, people aren’t getting any less fervent in their biases—those biases are just becoming more shameful, and therefore unspoken. As OKCupid founder and lead data scientist Christian Rudder found when studying attitudes about race and attraction, people didn’t become any less racist from 2009 to 2014. In fact, there was a slight statistical increase in racial bias. Not only that, the majority of users who only messaged within a certain set of racial categories often claimed to be open to a partner of any race. Whether that choice was purposeful or implicit is anyone’s guess, but as venture capitalist and founder of social network Pinboard Maciej Ceglowski puts it, “Even a moment on a dating site will show you that people are terrible at self-representation.”
In an effort to understand these biases and how they form over time, Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen studied the behavior of almost 800 “users” in a 2014 Tinder simulation. She created 60 profiles using stock images filtered in various ways and gave respondents a quiz after each swipe to delve deeper into their rationale. While an ethnically ambiguous woman, “Yasmin,” did score the most yes swipes, Petersen attributes her success rate to other markers: a heavily-filtered photo invoking a pricier aesthetic; hair that appears “cared for”; a keen attention to personal fashion. Another profile for an unquestionably black woman, “Lindsay,” fares far worse. As one survey respondent stated, “This woman’s aesthetic, which has definite racial and class markers, doesn’t appeal to me at all.” Survey respondents were uncharacteristically candid with their hesitations, but were often unable to explain why they felt the way they did.
Petersen concluded that “we’re constantly inventing narratives about the people who surround us…Tinder appears to encourage these narratives and crystallize the extrapolation process and package it into a five-second, low-stakes decision. “
So yes, Bumble BFF is not predicated on sexual attraction, but even when it comes to dating, it’s not only good looks we’re after. It’s more about the race and class clues wrapped up in people’s looks.
As it applies to dating, having a “type” isn’t so hard to admit. While it doesn’t absolve us of our biases, attraction has always been highly subjective, and codified preferences aren’t always racial. So why does it feel so icky when we apply the same filters to our friends? There’s the obvious one first: Generally speaking, you’re not trying to fuck your friends. At least not the friends you have to jump through hoops to form connections with when there are far more straightforward ways to get laid. “For dating, there’s such a clear goal,” explains Flashman. “But when you’re thinking ‘Oh, I’d like some more friends,’ the goal is less clear.”
📱 🐝 👯
There is a non-fatalistic way to look at the impact apps like Bumble BFF have on us, one that jives better with the tech industry’s digital utopia narrative. From a certain angle, these apps harbor the potential to correct our biases by showing us a wider range of people than we might interact with organically. Given that the only sorting filter for BFF is by distance—and even on the broadest setting, I’d run out of women to swipe on after just a week—the app should function as the opportunity sociologists like Flashman cite as critical to meeting people who wouldn’t normally stumble into your network.
But “should” is the operative word here, and given what we know about internalized bias, that “opportunity” of seeing a brown face flit across your screen may not be enough. The immediate worry is that if friendships continue to move online the way dating has, apps like Bumble BFF are merely accelerating our encroaching internal racism without sufficiently providing the IRL interactions that might reverse them. By relying on just snap judgment, users end up choosing people who remind them of their existing friends and, in the process, they reinforce any biases they originally held.
Even picking a specific interest and trying to find friends who share it regardless of socioeconomic markers, the way more traditional social networks like MeetUp or Facebook operate, isn’t always the best course correction either; users will often just end up sorting based on their own existing interests, even if they think they’re using those interests to make new friends. Simply put, your goal of finding new friends who love basketball and live within a 10 mile radius of you isn’t as inclusive as you think, given that you just winnowed your potential friend population down to a small group of people who meet said criteria.
Similarly, forcing heterogeneity into a social group, even in a legitimately woke attempt to break up institutional group dynamics by diversifying, isn’t always the most successful course of action. As Flashman and Ceglowski both assured me, overcoming our homogenous networks isn’t easy. Neighborhoods, education, jobs, housing, even recreational interests all contribute to whom we associate with and why. Forcing diversity into those categories by sheer power of will isn’t necessarily enough to overcome our ingrained preferences.
Does that mean we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t? Not quite. Flashman’s current research focuses on opportunity versus preference as it applies to friend-making. “There’s always a causality issue here, but it’s suggested that the opportunities make a big difference,” she tells me. “People who have greater access to a wider range of potential friends across race and ethnicity, academic profiles, socioeconomic status and have a broader array of options are more likely to end up with a heterogenous set of friends.” It may be hard to overcome your pre-existing networks, but a continued commitment to seeking out opportunities that provide for broader interactions are what eventually break up homogeneity. You can’t talk the talk unless you walk the walk.
Data from Rudder’s OKCupid research backs this up as well. As The Daily Dot reported in 2013, sociologist Kevin Lewis and other researchers from the University of California at San Diego discovered via sifting through OKCupid’s troves of open-source data an interesting phenomenon that ran counter to the “everybody’s racist” takeaways Rudder had gleaned. While Lewis’s findings did mimic much of Rudder’s, he also noticed one statistically significant aberration: Once a person had one interracial communiqué, their interactions with people of that race increased by an average of 115%, and in many cases, far higher.
Which is all to say that, yes, we’re all a little bit racist. But if you’re looking to legitimately diversify your friends circle via Bumble BFF, you’re not doomed from the start. Just make sure not to judge a profile by its cover photo (or the myriad emojis within).
Beejoli Shah (@beejoli) has written for New York Magazine, SPIN, The Guardian, Matter, and other publications, reporting on entertainment, technology, and culture. She currently lives in Austin.