Business or Pleasure?

Apps blurring the lines between networking and flirting may be new, but these trends go back decades.

A peach emoji nestling into a folder emoji.
Lisa Larson-Walker

“I see you keep winning Elizabeth also you have an awesome smile.” Winky face. Blushing emoji. Blushing emoji. These messages would have been innocent enough, hardly a blip in the often-crass landscape of direct messages women have come to expect on dating apps. But these were messages I received from a man I’ve never met and who is twice my age on LinkedIn. In the thick of the #MeToo movement that has brought so much attention to the unsavory abuses of workplace relationships for sexual and romantic gratification, I was surprised to see this blatant flirtation creep into my professional space. But I quickly found out I was not alone in this experience.

Peers of mine had experienced both men and women “sliding” into their DMs on LinkedIn with more personal than professional goals in mind. One friend made what she thought was a professional connection in real life that led to a LinkedIn connection. Then she got an ambiguous message suggesting they get drinks to help “build the connection.” One friend met someone out at a bar one night and was later contacted by him on LinkedIn based off only a first name. Potential daters love as much information at their fingertips as possible, and app developers, who treat dating and networking like two sides of the same social media coin, have found big business in gathering that data.

Dating app producer Feeld (who also brought you 3nder, an app for finding threesomes) released a model that could connect to your Slack work channels and allow you to find out if someone at work has a “crush on you.” Bumble, an app created in 2014, blends the personal and professional, and helps you look for a date, a friend, or an opportunity to grow their professional network. Users simply choose their setting, selecting from “dating,” “bff,” or “bizz” mode, and start looking for connections. Bumble Dating attempts to have a “feminist” twist by requiring women to “make the first move.” Or switch to Bumble Bizz, where you can “change your professional life from the palm of your hand.” Their new ads further juxtapose the personal and the professional: “Be the CEO your parents always wanted you to marry,” echoing the Gloria Steinem adage that “We’re becoming the men we wanted to marry.”

The feminist sheen on this dating/professional nexus doesn’t surprise historian Moira Weigel, who wrote Labor of Love, a history of dating. “My book argues that the entire history of dating develops only in a place that has women in the workforce in large numbers. It’s totally dependent on women entering workplaces and going outside of the home.” And Weigel says this dating and networking app spillover is just the latest manifestation of a dynamic that also goes back to the beginning.

So what’s behind the rise of career apps and dating apps that look almost identical to each other? It’s all about being forced to actively market ourselves to stand out in a hyper-competitive crowd. Work for millennials is a very different experience than it was for most of our parents or grandparents. We live in a gig economy. We stay at a job for shorter amounts of time, our email is almost always on, and independent contract work is on the rise. This economy creates a growing pressure for new professionals to learn how to sell themselves, to turn their skills and themselves into a single, coherent package someone will want to buy (or at least contract out).

Dating app developers have merely tapped into this same self-marketing for the growing number of Americans looking for love online. Fifteen percent of Americans have used online dating sites or apps, with the greatest jump in online dating happening amongst 18- to 24-year-olds. But to compete in today’s market, dating apps have to stay competitive and include features that will interest new users or keep old users coming back from more. Once you hit a wall, expanding into a different social networking area, like professional networking, just makes sense for business. One University of Chicago study found that “Over 75 percent of early-career workers in these upper-tier occupations report work-hour fluctuations of at least 30 percent during the month, primarily reflecting surges in work hours that place them at risk of over-work.” In this environment, making dating easier by merging it with work is just one way to expand an app’s clientele.

It might be tempting to blame the millennials and their apps for these blurred lines. But, you’d be blaming the wrong generation. Dating structures have always been connected to the workplace.

Historically, work was heavily agricultural, and individuals rarely left the home to do their work duties. They relied on family members and community networks to arrange their marriages—marriages that were required for economic security and producing heirs to that agricultural work and rarely included love as a consideration at all. Weigel explained that dating doesn’t exist unless women are working outside of the home and in places where they can meet men. As factory work evolved, people began to leave the home and work and home were separated. The workplace became a place of social mixing. People began to choose who they married based on something we call “love,” though of course economic interests were always part of the equation, as were abuses of economic and workplace power.

Now, as the workplace has become workplaces for many people, including digital, rather than physical spaces, it makes sense that dating too has gone online. But these digital spaces have brought many of the same analog hazards workplaces of yesteryear presented—potential for abuse, creepiness, and plain old lack of professional boundaries.

Though the public is now recognizing how widespread abuses in the workplace are, according to Weigel, these abuses date back to the earliest capitalist workplaces. “There was this one study in the 1920s of working women, asking, “Why did you change your last job?” Like the last time you went from one job to another, why was that? And by far the most common answer—I think it was more than 50 percent of respondents—was, ‘Because I thought my boss was about to rape me,’ or ‘because the sexual pressure from my boss became unbearable.’ ”

Workplaces played a dual and contradictory role in the romantic lives of Americans—they liberated young people from the constraints of their families and homes, but they also placed them in new positions of danger and vulnerability.

As Americans work longer and longer hours and depend on side gigs to supplement flagging incomes, money is time, and dating apps and professional networks might produce the desire for more shortcuts and overlap. Why shouldn’t people short on time multitask? But whether it takes place on LinkedIn or on the office floor, that multitasking requires a clear sense of boundaries and other people’s comfort. I can only hope that reporting my would-be LinkedIn wooer to the site administrators for his inappropriate use of the service gave him the reminder he needed.