Yoxly are a London-based start-up aiming to de-stigmatise sexual health and normalise it as a topic of conversation amongst the younger generation. Intriguingly this ‘conversation’ stretches right out to the idea of plugging a kind of badge, or tick-mark, of sexual health — a digital clean bill of health — directly into dating apps like Hinge and Bumble.
Crikey! So you’d be scrolling through someone’s profile on Hinge and there’s a little Yoxly badge right there — meaning, what, something like — this person had an STI test in the past 6 months? That they’re clean? Both? The exact form isn’t decided yet — its just an idea, but it points to a fascinating concept, which is importing ‘Proof of Work’ from other apps into dating app profiles. This is much broader than just sexual health, it could be anything area of life: exercise, finances, mental health, creativity…in theory anything there is an app for, which is everything.
Proof-of-work is a deep and powerful concept introduced by Bitcoin which essential means an irrefutable trail of evidence for real-world activity (‘work’). In Bitcoin this takes the form of computational effort — computers doing random sums basically — hence Bitcoin consuming more electricity than Argentina these days. But the concept can really apply to anything. When you go for a run and log it with Strava it is keeping a GPS record of your running — ‘work’ — allowing it to summaries your effort at end, like a kind of proof of work statement:
Yoxly is in a sense proof-of-work (PoW), not the actual outcome of the STI test but the fact that you went to have a test in the first place. You had to go to the clinic (or at least do the home one), which takes times time and effort and energy on your part. In this case the company Yoxly is verifying the PoW by keeping a track of your test. Therefore its is bankable evidence (straightforwardly validated by a neutral company) of real-world activity (doing a test). Presumably this could have some value on a dating app as signalling that you take responsibility for your sexual health, which although it sounds a bit out-there at first does have some logic to it.
Many apps contain ‘endogenous’ proof-of-work accounting, that is the basis for Eugene Wei’s legendary Status-as-a-service essay: that social apps like Instagram or Tik Tok contain within them PoW because you have to create funny videos, or take great pictures of interesting things, and this is hard evidence for real-world activity; and through this process status is conferred on the participants.
But dating is a funny category. In theory there are tonnes of candidates for endogenous PoW the apps could log: hinge could keep track of how much you reply, of how many dates you’ve been on (or how many you showed up for), of how many numbers you got, of how much time you’re putting into the app. These all count. But they also count against you. Because evidence of spending a lot of time on a dating app is itself a negative signal for a prospective partner. Its not a good look is it, saying I’ve been on this app for years and I’m still here? Even though everyone is using it you don’t want to advertise that you are really having to work at it; the opposite almost.
This was the revolution that Tinder wrought. Before, there was a high barrier to being on a dating app/site because you had to set up this huge profile — which itself is PoW. This fed into a stigma that the sites were dominated by people who were — lets say — struggling in the real-world a bit, and most people stayed off, especially younger people. By demolishing the barrier to setup to the requirement of just a few pictures, Tinder de-stigmastised the whole thing and suddenly a group of twenty somethings are sat there playing Tinder on a night out.
So endogenous PoW doesn’t work with dating apps, but the fascinating thing about Yoxly is that is is ‘Exogenous’ PoW, in other words it is activity from another domain of life which is imported into the dating app, and hence you get this little badge on your profile which denotes basically that you care about sexual health, and someone looking at your profile knows they can bank on this because it has been properly verified.
Which leads to the question, what sources of PoW could be imported into dating apps to enhance a the attractiveness of potential partner? There breadth of options covers most of people’s lives: physical fitness and sport, money and finances, Ethics perhaps, interests and hobbies.
Ones focussed around physical and mental health might include: Strava, Apple fitness, Yoxly, Headspace, Calm. This could power a ‘badge’ of sorts (or perhaps a more loosely defined activity statement) that gives an indication of regularly exercising, or meditating. Having done all this real world effort, why not be able to feature it on your dating profile? Keeping fit generally is attractive. The beauty is that you could just pull the PoW statement right in to your profile, like you can with Spotify or Instagram via API, so its easy and quick, and is in an easily digestible format for people looking at your profile.
Exercise could extend out into general interests, so you could plug-in your Duo Lingo, which shows the efforts you’ve been making to learn a new language, or perhaps an app which has been teaching you to learn the guitar. Your Kindle could even verify your claims that you’re a “voracious reader”.
There are more controversial areas this could stray into. What would an integration with Monzo make possible? This could offer verification that you are not in debt perhaps, or that you save regularly. What is crucial is that the PoW statement is focussed on the work itself not the outcome — it is far too much to show how much someone is saving each month, but the fact that they are — the work — is a useful signal for prospective partners without being too privacy-invasive. Monzo could even tell you weather someone is giving to charity, that might be something you’d want to highlight on your profile.
Conceptually it can get even more wild if you start just from what people value rather than what apps exist today. What would a PoW statement look like for calling your granny regularly? Or spending time with your niece /nephew? For volunteering at a homeless shelter? What would one look like for being funny, or for not being a player? The privacy alarm bells start ringing very loud here, but there is something conceptually interesting about it — if you are genuinely family-oriented, wouldn’t you want an easy, you-can-bank-on-this way to evidence that trait to a prospective partner?
This is an intriguing vector of evolution for dating apps but also fraught with difficulty. Beside the privacy concerns there are issues of how the dating app is effectively opining on what sort of traits are valuable in a partner — Strava being integrated is great for those who do lots of exercise but what about the more sedate, creative types, how do they highlight their strengths? And should Hinge or bumble really be in the game of making a thing about sexual health? It is commentary, ultimately, on what matters in dating, and so it gives these dating apps a subtle source of influence over public opinion in a domain that is deeply, deeply human — finding love. This is unsettling to think about given they are private companies, all the more so considering how powerful their network effects are.
So there are challenges. But at its heart there is a grain of a powerful idea here — which is that it is quite natural for people to want to be able to surface the things they do in the real world to prospective partners in a way the other party can trust instantly and unequivocally.