Love & Sex

Is This New Dating App Taking Away Men’s Privacy?

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You could be on this hook-up rating app and not even know it.

This month's NSA/PRISM scandal, which prominently featured media giants like Google and Facebook, has left us all on edge regarding our digital privacy and the ubiquitous services we freely give our information to. Short of eradicating our online media presence, there doesn't seem to be much we can do about it. Besides, it's not like a social networking system would openly give away our personal information and dating history without our consent, left to be subject to the ridicule and scrutiny of the public. No wait, there's an app for that. They call it Lulu—and men are its target.

Lulu, the new “rate him” app, allows its exclusively female users to access profiles of men they’re interested in through the information and photos that have been anonymously and secretly uploaded from Facebook by its other users. Users can review and rate men they've dated or know, while sourcing the opinions of other women about the men they've only just met at the bar. Later, they can share the reviews on their Facebook page.

Both cited as controversial and touted as the smart woman's little black book, Lulu is a strictly women-only app designed for “intelligent” women looking to inform themselves about potential dates, a digital, boundless "girl talk" session. With one huge caveat: men aren't allowed to use Lulu. Men who have been reviewed are neither informed about their posting nor allowed to access their profiles to see what women have said about them. And no, they can't rate any women themselves. It's seemingly the first quasi-Orwellian, privacy-skirting dating app, and it's making men rightfully uncomfortable, even outraged.

If this sounds like a Sex-and-the-City-ed beta version of Hot or Not, with nods to Yelp, and the ill-conceived proto-Facebook, Facemash, you’d be on the right track. The only thing not stoking the fire of lawsuits that would conceivably be aimed at Lulu is the fact that its content retains a level of tameness due to its impersonality. The “detailed” information it offers about men is concentrated down to a drop-list of hashtags, multiple choice answers, and numerical ratings based on criteria like appearance, humor, and first kiss (cue gags).

It’s really only catering to a certain kind of woman. The pre-written hashtag rating system that Lulu offers is often a one-noted, monolithic way to judge men. There’s also the complication that anyone could look both attractive or unappealing based on a rubric of pre-selected hashtags, Cosmo-esque quizzes, and stereotype-heavy content. Maybe some of us adore the spontaneity and imagination of a man who another friend, with a different outlook, would deem a #ManChild, complete with a poor numerical summation. The pre-formatted way in which men are rated makes the app’s content unspecific and yet invasive and, of course, subjective and potentially inaccurate. 

CEO Alexandra Chong thinks the app is fun and lighthearted and a great tool to recommend dates that just weren’t right for some people to their friends. She says she hopes the app will be used for good: “Should a guy not do well in a particular category, then they can change their behavior.” Is the app really made for this utility? Would a reported 75,000 users really log on for this happy-go-lucky, non-shallow purpose alone? Not when there are “good-natured” hashtags like #ManSlut or #TotalF**kingD**khead to sling around. Though the app advertises that it does not support dish session topics like penis or wallet size reports, the tags #Big.Feet and #AlwaysPays suggest otherwise.

This isn't the first we've heard of the hapless and unsuspecting falling prey to online sex rating. We know well David Merkur, the 28-year-old investment banker who kept an Excel spreadsheet of his online dates that went viral last year and similarly, in 2010, Karen Owen's Duke sex-rating Power Point captured attention. Merkur and Owens' actions were decried as both creepy and humiliating.  Both of these were private entries that were made public by a leak, never intended to be distributed to a wider audience. Yet, in this same social climate, we have created and condoned a public, gender-wide sex-rating app, backed to the tune of $3.5 million?  

Compare Lulu to Don’t Date Him Girl, a similar date-ranking site founded in 2005, which was also a target of controversy as many claims on posted profiles were found to be fallacious, some men even meeting in court to file lawsuits in 2006, after finding the sites contents to defame character. After that, DDHG was ordered to remove profiles from their site and has since been seen as a revenge site. While not revenge porn, apps like Lulu walk a fine tightrope and bring up a lot of questions: How many of these posts will be created out of anger and slander versus helpfulness? Is there a point when the informative nature of dating tech trumps the exploitative quality?

When you download the app, the service has access to your Facebook and will (according to its Terms of Service, I actually read them) extract your real name, email address, birthday, hometown, education history, location, relationship status, profile photo, photographs, friends’ names, friends’ photos, and put vaguely, “other information you make publicly available”. That’s a whole lot of digital information to post about a man without his knowledge or readily available access. Lulu ignores Facebook’s tactical “opt-in” clause on its Privacy Policies for 3rd party platforms, leaving the weight of responsibility on its users and the content they generate about Facebook users who have, in fact, not opted in to their service.  Lulu's aim seems to be preserving its user’s anonymity rather than its content's. 

Is there a way for men to delete their pictures if they don’t want it up there? Yes, but according to Time, it’s hard: “Guys who want to opt out of the service must send a letter requesting removal to privacy@onlulu.com with a screenshot of their profile, or download a separate app, Lulu Dude, to manage or deactivate their profiles.” The pertly named LuLu Dude won’t allow him to alter reviews, only to change his relationship status, photo, and get “expert tips”. That’s a lot of hoop-jumping, downloading, and care for a man who never opted-in.

Apps like Lulu could be creating, not empowered or informed female daters, but instead, a large group of men whose privacy settings have been usurped and who can't easily or knowingly remove themselves. When does “fun” technology cross over into libel and a breach of personal history and information? Lulu’s sales—and maybe their users—are about to find out.

Taking a look at the App Store, Lulu reviewers are less than congratulatory about Lulu’s capabilities: “I didn’t consent to being on here. Screw whoever made this.”; “The best way for your past to haunt you and the best way to lose a great person because it’s out of context.”; “This is slanderous, disgusting work that is sexist towards the very men we claim are being sexist towards us.” 

Women have always been seen as the sex most concerned with their online privacy and safety, with two-thirds of women reportedly using high privacy settings on social media. This makes sense, as revenge porn sites and rating sites have largely focused upon scrutinizing women rather than men in the past. If the same app came out geared towards men and taking from female Facebook users, no doubt there’d be a greater outcry. It remains to be seen whether a male-targeted app could create similar legal or social upset.

We should also challenge what Lulu, and apps just like it, serve. Aren’t we entitled to a little privacy when it comes to our relationship history? Also, if this isn’t a site for bashing as much as “streamlining” what women already do amongst themselves—then isn’t it potentially dangerous to open it up to a public who may not be familiar with its raters? While some bloggers have defended or dismissed the power of the app, suggesting that it's just the inevitable next step after typical online dating apps, they also overlook that fact that online daters, unlike Lulu's marks, are willing participants.  Will we become so information-hungry that apps like Lulu will leave us cynical and information-fatigued? There may be a point when we will have too much information about a person, when the crowd of voices judging/rating/hashtagging someone's past will compete with our willingness to simply have fun, and do what daters do, take risks on the mystery of love.

While the human romantic experience can never be boiled down to a hashtag (as much as we might try to make it so), I’m not so sure it can be helped by an app whose gender-specific targeting also operates without consent, and furthermore, without respect to privacy. As one App reviewer succinctly suggests to women searching for whatever answers they think Lulu could provide, “Just go on a couple dates with the lad.”