See bottom for statement from Badoo
It has been about a month since I signed up for Badoo. The dating social network that began five years ago in Europe is pitching itself to New Yorkers as the next great place to meet people, using bright ads across the city featuring actual users saying mostly scripted things like "I want to break your heart," or "I want to blow your mind. I'm an enigma, wrapped in a puzzle, wrapped in bacon."
The deluge of real life Badoo spam on subway cars and giant billboards doesn't just offer some indication of the company's desperation: it hints of what happens on the Internet version too. Behind its clean-cut image, the site's true purpose is a little less innocent: arranging hook-ups with the people near you. It's a formula that's helped make it the second most popular social network after Facebook in France, Belgium, Austria and Italy. According to both Alexa and comScore, it is now one of the world's top five social networking sites, and boasts more than 152 million users.
The business model – Badoo boasts "continued profitability" and an annual run rate of $150 million – rests not on commercial ads but on personal ones: it's been a pioneer in the pay-to-play model of social networking (i.e., you pay extra to get promoted in other people's feeds, just like in real life), and now claims to have about 1 million paying users every month. Still, Badoo has managed to score the lowest in a survey of 45 social networking sites for its privacy settings. And its Grindr-for-straight-people functionality has led to some serious concerns about stalkers and worse.
Would any of this deter me from pressing all of the I accepts? Nope.
Within the first hour of becoming a new member, my spam box received an average of six new marketing e-mails per hour. One of the subject lines I've become more familiar with is "Welcome back to Badoo.com." I get this email almost every time I log back into the site.
It may have been started by a wealthy 38-year-old Russian entrepreneur named Andrey Andreev (or is it Andrey Ogandzhanyants? Russian Forbes called him "one of the most mysterious businessmen in the West"), but Badoo must be staffing some Boy Scouts, they're just so damn prepared. When signing up, the site immediately harasses you for all your other possible logins. Essentially this helps them recruit your contacts and grab content. And you're incentivized right off the bat to harness this synergy. Badoo won't let you scope another user's pics without having uploaded three of your own first. This has me questioning why girls without pictures are writing me, and I continue to get that other familiar subject line in the junk-box: "1 new message waiting for you!" It can't not be a hooker or a robot.
What data will you give away to join the party? Will it be your Gmail account? Yahoo? Facebook? MSN? If you have a contact list somewhere on the web, or a photo album, Badoo wants to source it, mimic it, and get your friends hooked too. The site sends messages to all email addresses it can find through your accounts, with minimal consent, promising that a message from you awaited them at the other end.
It all depends on how much you value security and friends and peace of mind over the chances of geolocating that special someone. Once you've barely clicked on anything, the Freemium model rears his ugly head, and the cloudy bubble boxes pop-up, offering locations of where other members presently are – people whom you haven't yet met or talked to – for a fee.
Despite SwimFan vibes, Badoo still aims for an ambiguous social networking feel, and it claims to be succeeding at that game. It's the 118th most visited site on the net, and recently acquired users from Hot or Not, the face-rating-turned-dating-site that you didn't know still existed, for an undisclosed sum. For a while, Badoo's Facebook app ranked third behind Farmville and Cityville; last year, Facebook threatened to axe the Badoo app because it was being too viral.
One of the subject lines I've become more familiar with is "Welcome back to Badoo.com." I get this email almost every time I log back into the site.
Notwithstanding all of the awkward self-shots – men often feel the need to go shirtless in their profile photos – the site's appeal may be its latitude for sexual candidness, its users' frank honesty. It presses its members to engage with others using less subtle, more granular interest phrases: where Facebook asks, "Interested in Men or Women," and OkCupid simply lists sexual orientations, Badoo goes from innocently horny to decidedly desperate with lines like "Wants to meet with a guy," "Wants to drink hot chocolate with a girl." "Wants to cuddle with a guy." "Wants to hook up with a girl." To sell its own premium 'Super Powers,' Badoo uses pick-up lines that don't beat around the bush:
"Find out who wants to meet you. Access profiles of people you like from encounters. Message status to find out if your messages have been read. Invisible mode to view profiles secretly. Skip the queue to contact the most popular users."
With its shiny presentation, sexualized premise and slick startup ploys, Badoo feels like a bizarre super-collider of radical honesty and spammy fakery; that is to say, a souvenir of the Internet. Is this how people overcome their fear of public interactions and quavering introductions? How un-cowardly do we look when we're cheaply validated with verbalized sexual gazing over a measly linked interest in Arcade Fire set next to our tiny floating heads? What does all this cutting-to-the-chase actually mean?
Badoo may boast 125,000 new users each day, but each day I'm explaining what Badoo is to New Yorkers who've never heard of it. That could change, but my optimism is muted. The site's usage varies by location, according to the company: In the UK it's used for casual dating, in the Czech Republic it's way to find a husband or wife, and in Indonesia, reports TechCrunch, "burqa-clad women find self expression online."
At the moment, though, I sense a pack of deranged Tumblr addicts coming my way. They just clicked out of Stickam, and are making a pitstop on a cyber-commute, somewhere between Myspace and AdultFriendFinder.
It gets real
I think Maryam, the user in one of the site's recent promotional videos, is a babe, so I message her, not really expecting a response because I wasn't willing to purchase the Super Powers necessary to leap to the top of her queue. At the end of the day on Friday, desire took over, and I decided to get the powers for free – by inviting all of my Facebook contacts (by default Badoo selects all) to join the site too. I couldn't bring myself to spam all of my friends so I asked a colleague to press "invite" for me.
Not only did Badoo send invitations to all of my Facebook contacts, but apparently to all of my Gmail contacts as well. Within three minutes, a confused friend in Malibu was calling, asking where the fuck I had taken him. While I tried to help him figure out how to delete his new Badoo account – something I haven't tried myself yet – I nervously giggled, realizing the larger scope of this particular I accept. "Dan is looking for women ages 18-35," he said, "yeah, I bet you are." On Saturday, I was walking in Astoria with my neighborhood friend, Keith, explaining the Badoo spam he'd received — not on Facebook, but in his email — when I got a voicemail from my mom: "I got this thing on my email… it said, 'Daniel is trying to send you a message through Badoo' and I don't know if it's legit or not."
My mom doesn't have even have a Facebook. I quickly called her back. She thought it was odd that I'd be sending a request, asking when her birthday is (did she fall between the ages of 18 and 35?) Not only was Badoo trying to hook me up with my own mom, it was turning me into a bigger loudmouth than Kanye West. Zuckerberg once had it out for Badoo; now it apparently works with Badoo to magically retrieve something I had gladly withheld from the bastards at Facebook for years: my real email address.
Still no response from Maryam :(
A pack of deranged Tumblr addicts are coming my way, they just clicked out of Stickam, and are making a pitstop on a cyber-commute, somewhere between Myspace and AdultFriendFinder.
While I have yet to make real life interactions with any Badoo girls, there is this one I started speaking with who is determined to meet up; let me get back to you on that. There are many gorgeous women to choose from, but I'm hesitant to believe most of them are real (or not taking ecstasy in line at Pacha). The probable cam bots and porn links have baked a certain kind of paranoia into the system. An article last year by the Finnish newspaper Iltalehti reported complaints that numerous Badoo profiles had been created without people's consent.
One line of questioning from a girl, Dora, in Park Slope began like this: "Are you real?"
I gave her my number to support the case that I was indeed, Daniel Stuckey. She called in an instant. I told her I was on the train back to Astoria for the night, so it hardly lasted a minute. But we started speaking again a few days later, and I asked Dora how long she'd been using Badoo, and told her I was writing about the site. She said, "Why? What's so fascinating about it?" she wanted to know. I told her. Pause, and then she was back. "It's crazy, It's a mess," she said. "I actually work for them." She told me that for Badoo, she fields the site for fakes (hence her initial message), and had recently caught an 11 year old boy posing as 27. Dora also told me she had seen user complaint messages, blaming the site for rape. *
Sexual predators have stalked social networks since prehistoric times. But once those networks got anonymous, digital, and geo-locating, the risks only grew. Facebook alone employs hundreds of people to screen for predators, minors and abusive content. But evictions do little to deter predators, who can either sign up under a new account or simply move to other social networks. In 2009, after Myspace claimed it had removed 90,000 sex offenders, more than 8,000 of them immediately popped up on Facebook. On Tuesday, Balderton Capital, a London-based venture capital firm, said that it was returning a 13 percent stake in Sulake, a Finnish social gaming company, after discovering that one of the company's sites, Habbo, was frequented by sexual predators who used it for teenage sex chats.
"What's so fascinating about it?" she wanted to know. Pause, and she was back. "It's crazy, it's a mess," she said. "I actually work for them."
Throw a sexual premise into your social network, and you're virtually, literally, inviting sketchiness. Reports of rape resulting from encounters on Badoo are scant, but in March, police arrested a 36-year-old San Clemente man suspected of raping a 33-year-old woman after inviting her to take part in a bizarre "spiritual" ritual involving eggs.
Meanwhile, in the past month, three men have been accused of raping children they met through the social network Skout, a San Francisco-based Badoo clone. Though it began three years ago as a Foursquare-like check-in service, Skout gained more attention when it transformed into a geo-located flirting service, and has been attracting millions of new users a month. But a "significant" portion of these users are minors, and each of the accused rapists allegedly posed as teenagers in a forum for 13- to 17-year-olds: a 15-year-old Ohio girl said she had been raped by a 37-year-old man, a 24-year-old man has been accused of raping a 12-year-old girl in Escondido, Calif., and a 21-year-old man from Waukesha, Wis., is facing charges for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old boy, reports the New York Times. The founders were "startled," according to the paper, because they thought they had adequate safeguards in place. "One case is too many," Christian Wiklund, Skout's founder, said on Monday. "When you have three, it looks like a pattern. This is my worst fear."
The company announced this week it was suspending the service for children under 13, and would work with a task force of experts to scrutinize company practices and improve age verification. "We're seeing more of these cases," Lt. Craig Carter of the Escondido Police Department, told the Times. "Parents need to be aware that their kids could be on these Web sites. In this case, if her parents had taken her phone and looked at her messages on Skout, they would have immediately seen inappropriate responses for someone that is 12 years old."
Still, Andreessen Horowitz, the prestigious Silicon Valley venture capital firm that validated Sklout with a $22 million investment last year, said it has no plans to abandon its investment. One reason, according to an investor at the company, was the site's "safety and security protocols."
Badoo's investors also appear to be happy. The site just launched an iPhone app, and is said to be considering a 2013 initial public offering. "We're not thinking about this because only thing for us is to go to new markets, to make bigger," Badoo's founder, Mr. Andreev, clarified to the Telegraph in March. Since starting Badoo five years ago after a string of highly profitable Russian internet businesses like Mamba, Begun and SpyLog, Mr. Andreev has managed to pull in $30 million from the Russian private equity firm Finam Capital and graced the cover of Wired UK.
It's not yet clear if Badoo can achieve any of the success in the United States that it's enjoyed overseas. But Mr. Andreev is confident in his formula: encouraging users to pay to increase their likelihood of getting others' attention by appealing directly to their animal brain. He explained it last year, sounding something like a Mephistophelean Zuckerberg. "The very first day [of this paid service] we produced $5,000, the second $6,000, the 3rd a lot more — I was not expecting this. But individuals really like advertising themselves. Plenty of individuals use this purpose many occasions a day. They grow to be addicted."
Sketchy, ugly, creepy — sure. But in the tiring speed date of new social apps, that's some refreshing honesty.
- Update June 18, 2012 Dora, the user moderator, was in fact not an employee of Badoo. The girl who created Dora recently came forward as a high school senior, stating she posted the fake profile for work on a final research project. A company spokesperson adds, "Badoo does not employ moderators in the US. We have a large moderation team that scans every photo uploaded on Badoo globally, but they are based outside of the States."