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Facebook's new Dating service is ready to take on Tinder

The social network, still grappling with how it handles users' privacy, is getting ready to find you a date -- but only if you live in Colombia.

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Facebook Dating, its matchmaker service, is launching in Colombia.

Facebook

Facebook is ready to help you find a date.

The social network on Thursday launched Facebook Dating, the matchmaking service it announced in May, in its first market. Starting Thursday, Facebook users in Colombia can create dating profiles. Once the company thinks it's collected enough profiles, it will start to let people match with each other. Facebook wouldn't reveal exactly how many profiles it initially wants in circulation, or the timeline for matching to begin, but said it will be days or weeks -- and not months. 

It also didn't say when the service would be opened up to other markets. 

Here's how it works: The dating feature is part of Facebook's main app and is a free service. You'll be able to find the feature in Facebook's main menu, next to other services like Groups, Events or Marketplace. Once there, you can create a profile by adding pictures, personal details like location and where you went to school, and answer ice-breakers like "What does your perfect day look like?" It will be separate from your regular Facebook profile.

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Unlike competitors Tinder or Bumble, there's no swiping left or right to like or reject potential matches. Instead, you'll need to scroll down through a person's profile and tap if you're interested. You'll only see people who aren't your Facebook friends, or people who are friends of friends. The assumption is that you already know your friends and this is about taking advantage of the larger Facebook network. (It also helps to avoid awkwardness, like running into family on the service.)

Facebook says its aim is helping its user make lasting connections and not just find hookups. "We wanted to make it apparent these are people you're considering. It's not just a profile," Nathan Sharp, product manager for Facebook dating, said in an interview last week. "This should be about relationships, not one-night stands."

Facebook surprised the world when it unveiled the service in May during its F8 developer conference. That's because the world's biggest social network and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, have been scrutinized over its user data collection practices and whether it can actually keep private all the data it collects about its more than 2.2 billion users. That focus followed a scandal in March over Cambridge Analytica, a UK-based digital consultancy that harvested data from up to 87 million Facebook users without their permission.

The controversy caused many people -- including lawmakers -- to wonder if Facebook could be trusted with personal information, so unveiling a product that collects the even more intimate details associated with online courtship strikes a tone-deaf note for some observers.

"Given their track record with being good custodians of data, I'd be concerned," said Jen King, director of Consumer Privacy at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society. "But I feel like people who are going to opt into Facebook matching them with dates probably don't have that level of skepticism."

For its part, Facebook said no data from the dating service will be used for advertising targeting. If you delete your Facebook Dating profile, the data will also be deleted, Sharp said.

"This was very much a privacy- and integrity-first project," said Sharp. "Announcing it at F8 really had nothing to do with Cambridge Analytica."  

Missed Connections

Facebook says 200 million people on Facebook have their relationship status set to "single."

For the social network, getting into online dating seems like a way to raise engagement and get people to use the app for longer periods of time. That feeds into Facebook's ability to serve up the ads that account for the majority of its $40 billion in annual sales.

The online dating market is already saturated. Aside from Tinder and Bumble, there's OKCupid, The League, and more niche services like Farmers Only. Dating services in the US make about $3 billion a year in revenue, according to IbisWorld, a research firm.

Facebook thinks the key feature that sets its dating service apart from the competition is the ability to tap into its Events and Groups features. For example, if you've RSVD'd yes to attending a music festival, you might be able to connect with someone going, too. Or, you could find someone who also attended an event you went to last month, but didn't meet -- a sort of Missed Connections tool.

There are some other nuances to the app, too. If you're interested in someone, you can leave them a message, but the connection isn't made until the other person messages back (unlike an app like Tinder, which allows people to start chatting only if both swipe right.) All of the chatting takes place inside the Dating section of the Facebook app, instead of other chat apps like Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, which Facebook owns.

Facebook wanted to test in a South American country because online dating has already become a "pervasive behavior" there, says Sharp. The company picked Colombia, which has a population of 48.6 million, because many people in that market had already socially accepted online dating, he said.  

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