With an advertisement boldly declaring that “no banglas, no maids, no fakes/bots, no escorts” will be accepted on its platform, elitist dating app HighBlood has sparked a firestorm of vitriolic comments and criticism on the internet.
And it has not even been released yet.
HighBlood was featured on Mashable — its critical coverage on the platform and creator Herbert Eng was shared over 680 times. And on the Singapore channel of Reddit, comments streamed in, unanimously condemning the app and Eng.
The widespread outcry is understandable. The advertisement reeks not just of elitism, but of xenophobia, and racism; it is not merely crude, it is abhorrent and speaks volumes about the character and ethics of its creator.
(For non-Singaporeans, ‘banglas’ is a slang-term used to describe the country’s migrant workers who usually are employed in the construction industry).
Perhaps the intent of Eng was to deliberately ignite controversy, and, in turn, draw publicity to the app. If that was, indeed, his game plan, it has worked. In addition to Mashable’s article and the Reddit thread, VulcanPost and The New Paper also wrote about it.
And now, I, myself, am contributing to its media coverage with this article.
But in my capacity as a tech reporter, I feel that it is necessary to call out ugly behaviour in the ecosystem.
For full disclosure, Eng has written for e27 and, to be frank, it is one of our better performing articles from 2016. The man knows how to stir the pot.
Let’s get into it
An advertisement that seeks to perpetuate and accentuate the pre-existing prejudices has no place in society.
Especially in a virulent political climate where populism is fanning the flames of division among people of different class, ethnicity and religion, such a message could not have come at a worse time.
But putting global politics aside, the advertisement has also, once again, highlighted the ugliness that runs deep within Singapore’s society.
I used to be a research-writer at a small video company. One of my assignments involved talking to NGOs and volunteers trying to alleviate and bring to attention the plight of foreign workers.
The mistreatment of some of these workers is no laughing matter. In fact, it is not overly difficult to find examples of injustice. Just open the newspaper and you find incidents of employers cramming foreign workers into unlivable spaces or absconding with their salary or even withholding their passports. As for maids, it is also not uncommon to read a report of ill-treatment at hand of their employers.
Therefore, to trivialise these problems by casting foreign workers as “the others” or “undateable” is unconscionable. It seeks to widen the divide in a society already steep in classism. The condemnation the advertisement is justified, and it’s encouraging to see more people — and more media outlets — stepping up to the plate to drag its ugliness to the light of criticism, and show it for what it is.
On the other hand…
Playing devil’s advocate
It is also fair that I take a more objective perspective of the app itself and look beyond its cover, so I will lay down my pitchfork for a minute and examine the app’s ideology.
On Eng’s Medium post about HighBlood, he states that the app uses filters such as income, profession and prestige schools.
This serves to “eliminate fake profiles and frivolity in online dating by reducing uncertainty and empowering people with the confidence.” He goes on to claim that all these information will be verified by accountants/professionals. Users have to submit official documents to verify themselves.
While it is beyond me why anyone would take such a big risk in submitting sensitive documents to a dating app, this point digresses from my main argument.
The app itself is actually not overly problematic, the same product exists in many forms across the world (including a ‘first-mover’ in Singapore called Ivory).
“HighBlood isn’t about being elite really. it’s about uncertainty reduction, exposing the Truth and surfacing true competence over superficial positives. Might be counterintuitive to most people.” says Eng.
Taking that aforementioned incendiary advertisement aside, is this service really deserving of all its hate, considering that for many years, conventional matchmaking services that focus on pairing high net-worth professionals have been in operation?
And if you are talking about the tech space, just look to the US, similar apps such as Tinder-for-elite platform The League have sprung up over the last few years. When it launched in January 2015, there was already a 75,000 people long waitlist. But instead of an algorithm that focuses on income-level or education level, it looks at users’ ambitions and achievements.
Even mainstream dating apps Tinder and OkCupid are not exactly shy about injecting a little prejudicial exclusivity to their platform.
Last week, TechCrunch reported that Tinder has a members-only version of its app called TinderSelect which includes only celebrities, super models, and ultra high net-worth individuals. OkCupid, on the other hand, categorises users based on their attractiveness, meaning that attractive people will more likely appear to those who are equally attractive.
But of course, just because the big guys are championing these features doesn’t make it right. Tech founders are hardly the paragons of morality (in fact, they are more of the opposite — like rock stars or trust fund babies, many who come to riches too early in their lives do not know how to handle it well)
HighBlood is yet another byproduct of this pernicious environment.
But you know what the sad thing is? If the success of Silicon Valley’s elitist dating apps is anything to go by, HighBlood may have an actual shot at success. Given how prejudiced this society is, it would not surprise me if there are many takers who would not want to see a ‘bangla’ or a ‘maid’ on the platform.
After all, last year proved that pandering to racism and xenophobism can reap huge dividends.
Calling out bad behaviour, unfortunately, doesn’t make it go away. When you are dealing with a toxic mentality so deeply ingrained in our society (it’s best not to open this can of worms or this word jam might overfloweth), shaming does little to pluck out the roots; being sanctimonious also kind of drives people away (and I do freely admit the tone of my article probably gives out a bit of that vibe).
As long as HighBlood is operating within legal means, the only concrete opposition I see standing in its way is the aforementioned Ivory, which offers a near-identical value proposition — catering to elites.
Image Credit: HighBlood