Video dating is a fairly recent concept which blew up over the pandemic, all thanks to social distancing. Ever since Bumble dipped its toes into video dating in 2019, major players in the market including Tinder, Hinge and Hily were quick to follow by incorporating the feature into their own coveted apps. One of the most recent players to crop up on the scene is Facebook—testing a video speed dating platform with no public profiles, swiping or Direct Messaging (DMs).
“Sparked is an early experiment by the New Product Experimentation (NPE) Team,” a spokesperson for Facebook confirmed to TechCrunch. “We’re exploring how video-first speed dating can help people find love online.” Currently undergoing a “small, external beta test” designed to generate insights in order to improve experiences, the app is yet to go live on Google Play and App Store.
However, one can presently access Sparked via its dedicated website. Since the beta testing is region specific, the portal is accessible only to users in the US (or those with VPNs bouncing off their IP addresses to every corner of the planet).
Describing itself as “video dating with kind people,” Sparked sports a plethora of features aimed at promoting kindness in the dating sphere. Promising the absence of public profiles, swiping and DMs altogether, the speed dating app puts users registered in a speed dating event nearby on a series of virtual dates lasting four minutes each. If ‘sparks’ literally fly between you and your potential partner, the app then schedules a second date lasting ten minutes. From there on, Sparked suggests users to exchange contact information and stay in touch through Instagram, iMessage or email—self promotion at its very best.
During a test experience at a Chicago Date Night event, The Verge attempted to set up a profile on the free app via a Facebook account. “The user sign-up flow suggests kindness is a key theme for the app,” the publication noted, outlining prompts along the lines of “be kind,” “keep this a safe space” and “show up for the date” featured in the onboarding process.
While signing up, users are asked to commit to this positive dating experience by explaining what makes them a ‘kind dater’. These responses will then be “reviewed by a human at Sparked” before users can gain access to the platform and go on speed dates. Users also have the option to choose their gender preferences listed between men, women and nonbinary individuals. They are then directed to a page asking them if they’re open to date trans people as well.
Before we break down Facebook’s increasing obsession with our love lives, let’s touch upon the fact that Sparked is not the tech giant’s first attempt at entering the dating sphere.
In 2019, Facebook Dating began its operations in the US—recently arriving in the UK. Marketed as a “relief to the loneliness caused by confinement of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the service essentially operates within the main Facebook app. Similar to mainstream dating apps, Facebook Dating lets users view each other’s public profiles, send a ‘like’ and wait for a ‘match’ to start a conversation.
In the early days of the pandemic, however, Facebook announced a new video calling feature that will allow users of its Facebook Dating service to connect via Messenger. While this can be appreciated as a timely move in order to compete with other dating apps and tap the upcoming market segment, it makes one wonder about Facebook’s commitment to Sparked with ‘video calling’ as one of its major features in the first place. The built-in video experience could potentially compete with Sparked—unless the new product’s goal is to become another feature inside Facebook Dating in itself.
Although Sparked hopes to cater to the increasing list of users who are sick of swiping and filtering through hundreds of profiles, analysts warn against Facebook’s success in the dating sector. “People don’t see Facebook as a place to go for online dating,” said Scott Kessler, an analyst at the research consultancy Third Bridge, in an interview with Market Watch. Even though the service has “novel features and functionality,” Kessler highlighted how the tech giant’s history with user data acts as a potential barrier for success.
“I do think there is a level of scepticism or concern regarding how the company and the property accesses and utilises people’s personal information and data,” Kessler added. “It makes launching this particular property and gaining traction perhaps more challenging than people might have expected.”
A glance into the statistics of the existing dating sector lands an even bigger blow on Facebook’s efforts. As Tinder’s direct revenues increased by 18 per cent year-over-year to $1.4 billion in 2020, Bumble topped all of its revenue estimates in the first quarter, pulling in $165.6 million in the fourth quarter of that same year. Facebook, on the other hand, only has one achievement to date to list on its portfolio: 1.5 billion Facebook Dating matches in 20 countries. Not to break Facebook’s bubble or anything, but a ‘match’ may not necessarily indicate a successful pairing either.
With that being said, Sparked can currently be counted as an experiment. It might have the potential to launch globally in the near future, be merged into Facebook Dating or shut down completely. Only two factors can confirm our suspicion—time or another data breach.
On 16 March 2021, Instagram announced a major security update aiming to make the platform safer for younger audiences. The measure introduced restrictions on Direct Messages (DMs) between teens and adults they don’t follow, constant prompts to be cautious about online interactions as well as encouragement to make their accounts private. Barely two days later, BuzzFeed News obtained an internal Facebook post confirming the company’s plans to launch a separate version of Instagram altogether for children under the age of 13. What could possibly go wrong, right?
“I’m excited to announce that going forward, we have identified youth work as a priority for Instagram and have added it to our H1 priority list,” Vishal Shah, Instagram’s vice president of product, wrote on the employee board. The message outlined two ‘youth pillars’ the platform would be focusing on: “accelerating integrity and privacy work to ensure the safest possible experience for teens” along with “building a version of Instagram that allows people under the age of 13 to safely use the platform for the first time.”
“Kids are increasingly asking their parents if they can join apps that help them keep up with their friends,” Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesman, said in a supporting statement. Osborne further highlighted the absence of child-friendly social networking apps in the present market—hence working on building additional products like Messenger Kids to fill the gap.
“We’re exploring bringing a parent-controlled experience to Instagram to help kids keep up with their friends, discover new hobbies and interests and more,” he added. Given the app’s popularity among teens, Instagram ultimately seeks to tap into an audience of children under the age of 13 as a viable growth segment. Shifting this potential segment onto a separate platform not only helps Instagram regulate the social media but also expand its user base and ‘future-proof’ the app’s demand in the lifestyle of the next generation.
However, child safety experts and health advocates were quick to jump onto the scene, digging up the demography’s brushes with predators on the social media platform—thereby urging Facebook to scrap all plans on implementing ‘Kidstagram’.
In a letter coordinated by the non-profit youth advocacy Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, more than 20 groups and dozens of individual researchers labelled ‘Instagram for kids’ as a tool that will “put young users at great risks.” Citing a “growing body of research” demonstrating the negative effects of social media on the youth, the letter implored Mark Zuckerberg to scrap the project.
“Instagram, in particular, exploits young people’s fear of missing out and desire for peer approval to encourage children and teens to constantly check their devices and share photos with their followers,” the letter read, adding how the platform’s “relentless focus on appearance, self-presentation, and branding presents challenges to adolescents’ privacy and wellbeing.”
The letter further highlighted how the effects of Instagram—while proven to be negative on teens—will be even more grave for those under the age of 13. “Young children are highly persuadable by algorithmic prediction of what they might click on next, and we are very concerned about how automated decision making would determine what children see and experience on a kids’ Instagram platform,” the letter said.
Although the groups agree that “something needs to be done to protect the millions of children who have lied about their age to create Instagram accounts,” they outlined how “launching a version of Instagram for children under 13 is not the right remedy.” The letter thereby urged the tech giant to abandon its plans that are still “in the early planning stages.”
“Doing so would send a strong message that Facebook understands the vast concerns about the effects its business model is having on young people and is open to solutions that truly benefit children and teens—not just Facebook’s market share,” the letter concluded.
Although Facebook is yet to comment regarding the letter, at a hearing related to Facebook’s antitrust concerns earlier this year Zuckerberg shrugged off all criticisms of the platform, stating that “there is clearly a large number of people under the age of 13 who would want to use a service like Instagram” to “stay connected with friends.”
Let’s be honest here, the backlash that ‘Instagram for kids’ is getting isn’t surprising, especially given the case studies of Messenger Kids and YouTube Kids.
Previous attempt of the tech giant to dip its toes into the coveted market segment—with Messenger Kids in 2017—was quick to run into problems. Two years after its launch, Facebook uncovered a major design flaw that made it possible for kids to enter group chats with strangers without the authorisation of their parents. In the following weeks, Facebook quietly shut down those group chats and alerted users, without making any public statements disclosing the issue.
YouTube is yet another platform that has run into trouble after launching its child-friendly alternative. Launched in 2015, YouTube Kids had to crack down on inappropriate videos being displayed to its users. Earlier this month, the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy hammered the service for its low-quality content, a high degree of product placement and insufficient content moderation. Just last week, Viacom, Disney, and 10 advertising technology firms came to a settlement in a lawsuit that accused these companies of launching tracking software on children-focused apps without the consent of their parents.
While Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram swears by its upcoming transparency and control features, stating the absence of ads altogether on the curated platform, a plethora of researchers are accusing the tech giant for its attempt at “normalising the idea that social connections exist to be monetised.”
“From a privacy perspective, you’re just legitimising children’s interactions being monetised in the same way that all of the adults using these platforms are,” said Priya Kumar, a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland. In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Kumar mentioned how a lot of the children using YouTube Kids often end up migrating to the main platform either by choice or by accident—a bane for parents but a boon for companies. “Just because you have a platform for kids, it doesn’t mean the kids are going to stay there,” she added.
Although Messenger Kids and YouTube Kids have raised concerning issues, some independent entertainment companies that have successfully tapped into the coveted market segment can’t be kept out of the loop. Moonbug, for example, is a successful example of a media network delivering developmentally appropriate and accessible content to children all over the world. Utilising the data collected to “understand the needs, wants and current trends” of the young audience, the on-demand video platform distributes fun and safe content via its kids-friendly app.
While Instagram is constantly introducing new security and anti-bullying tools, they might just be far from solving the problem altogether. After all, if kids below 13 can lie about their age on Instagram, what stops adults from lying about their age on such ‘under-13’ platforms? Maybe ‘Kidstagram’ should remain a hashtag for the time being.