My dream dating app has been banned by Apple
Why Apple's ban on astrology sucks for me, and more importantly - sucks for minority developers.
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We received a call from the App Review team this morning saying they were confused at how we did it, but that the decision (which had been standing for over a month and through 9 rounds of rejections) has been REVERSED!! We’re still not in the App Store yet for clerical reasons, and there’s no guarantee that Apple won’t find other menial reasons to reject us again, but this is a huge huge step. Thank you to everyone who helped out, thank you to our new followers, thank you a million times. Many people told us that the only way to get through was to kiss asses and that just didn’t sit right with us.
It’s also been cool to see people in the tech community come out in support of Struck:
Anyway, back to my original story about the situation Struck found themselves in…
Earlier this year I tweeted my thoughts on astrology:
I suppose it reflected my thoughts fairly accurately as of January 21st, 2020.
It’s fair to say I am fairly sceptical, so part of me gets annoyed at the idea of people engaging with the idea that the placement and movement of celestial bodies is of any consequence to human life.
But I got a reply to that tweet that made me take pause:
David Farrier @davidfarrieri don't understand if people who are into astrology are in on the joke or not
Initially, I felt a twinge of annoyance. “Oh God, why do we have to take all this stuff so seriously?”
Then I looked at some of the replies to my tweet, and @SaigonSyl was kinda bang on: All the people agreeing with me were cis men. And for what it’s worth, white cis men.
I was reminded of this exchange today, because my friend Rachel’s fucking great astrology dating app, Struck, has just been banned from the App Store. Months and months in development, all their hard work essentially put in the bin.
“We were met by rejection after rejection,” says Rachel Lo, Struck’s co-founder.
“Nine rejections, on the basis of their guideline “4.3 Design - Spam.”
Offensively, this guideline groups astrology (“fortune telling” in their words) alongside “burp and fart apps” under the umbrella of “spam.”
And when we finally stripped out each astrology feature piece by piece as requested by the Apple employees we spoke to on the phone, we were met by backpedaling and new excuses that didn’t make sense.
Most recently, we were told dating apps aren't being allowed despite the fact that (1) two Apple employees told us verbally that dating apps were acceptable and (2) we know of multiple dating apps that have been accepted over this timeframe, demonstrating an apparent bias against us specifically.”
It was at this point that I remembered my tweet earlier this year, and @SaigonSyl’s comment on it. Rachel from Struck went on:
“Apple has a monopoly over app content and it's no surprise they've banned an entire category that's most observed/celebrated by female, LGBTQ+, and BIPOC users. These groups have always existed on the peripheries of the tech world, and it appears they will continue to exist this way.”
Essentially, as Rachel points out, Apple’s astrology ban disproportionately affects female-led businesses and developers.
Another fan of Struck put it this way: “Struck has the potential to be a real space of community for BIPOC, Queer People, and women — those who most frequently find astrology useful / fascinating / a source of joy.”
I’ve reached out to Apple for comment.
For full transparency, I know Rachel Lo. We’re friends, and she told me about her idea for Struck not long after she’d had it.
And I just remember sitting there going, “This is a such a good idea!”
The idea was simple: Matching people for dating based on their star signs. It was brilliant — combing two things people in LA love: Dating, and astrology.
In my mind, it was brilliant on so many levels. For one thing, if you matched with someone, it would give you this wonderful backstory to your future relationship.
Imagine meeting someone on an app, and instead of your story being, “Yeah, they looked hot and said this quirky joke in their profile lol”, you could say “we matched because my sun is in Capricorn — the 11th house! — and their moon was in in Aries, so of course the planets aligned at birth and here we are, in love!” (I don’t know anything about astrology so sorry if that makes no sense).
My point is: Instant amazing backstory.
On top of this, if you got no matches, you had the perfect excuse. It wasn’t because your looks and personality were absolutely repulsive to another human — it was because stupid Pluto was in the wrong place at the wrong time!
Rachel also had a great name for her App, Struck — as in ‘star-struck’ — and the design was to kill for. I joined the beta via TestFlight, and this is what it looked like:
I’d been testing it for a few months, and hadn’t been getting any matches. I blamed the celestial bodies, of course — little did I know there was another reason: The app wasn’t getting enough users for me to potentially match with, because it wasn’t allowed on the store. So my quest for love was doomed from the start. Thanks, Apple.
Why the sudden push back from this giant, seemingly inclusive corporation, against two women of colour (and one dude) who’d made an app? I mean, how the fuck is co-star on there?
Rachel has a theory: “The rule quietly went into effect in March (after we had already been in development for almost 6 months), so they’re effectively squashing any competition co-star might face.”
As I waited for Apple to reply, I decided to reach out to @SaigonSyl (real name Jean Sergent) — the person who originally got me rethinking my thoughts on astrology — to see what they made of all this. I sent them a DM, and they got back to me pretty quickly.
“I’m a writer, actor and sociologist, and heaps of what I do is about mysticism and gender attitudes. I also do youth work with queer kids in NZ, and astrology is such a huge part of queer circles now.”
I asked her what she thought of what had happened.
“What strikes me immediately about what Struck is going through is that it is completely ridiculous. E-commerce market saturation is already so heavy, and making a name for yourself as an app is so difficult without the backing of a larger media conglomerate,” said Jean.
“The developers of Struck have hit the nail on the head in their analysis of why it's so hard for them to get their app signed off by the app store: gatekeeping, and the biases built in to algorithms that make life easier for people in power. This is some ‘computer says no’ level bullshit!”
I asked Jean for her take on astrology, and to expand on the small hit she originally tweeted at me.
“Astrology is an ancient art, and has adapted throughout the eras of human innovation more than any other spiritual practice. Mars, the planet of war and masculinity, is also the planet that rules over your car. Don’t ask me how, I don’t drive. Astrology has practical, everyday uses, as the over five million users of Co-Star app could attest to. Using astrology involves living in harmony with the chaos of the infinite universe. It’s a relaxing way to remember that we are nothing.
“Women, people of colour, and queer people love astrology, and therefore cis white guys don’t like it. Tale as old as time. When women become the dominant practitioners of an art, craft, or industry, then men turn against it in droves.
“Male hostility towards astrology is rooted in easy going, casual misogyny. It’s totally socially acceptable to be dismissive of women’s interests. Entire industries, like fashion and gossip magazines, have been invented to keep women feeling dumb, and keep men comfortable in their opinions that women are, just generally, and y’know we can all agree, they're just dumb mate.
“Struck are a diverse team of entrepreneurs with a genuinely brilliant idea, so no wonder the man wants them to go nowhere fast. I personally need an astrology-based dating app as soon as humanly possible, thanks. I’m a busy woman, I haven't got time to accidentally date a Virgo. I’m not going through that again!”
You can watch more of Jean’s thoughts in this short documentary she’s a part of - “What’s With Our Love of Astrology?”.
As for me - I’m just sad.
I’m sad for Rachel Lo and what she made with her tiny team, I’m sad for what Apple’s ban means for other POC and minority developers, and I’m sad for me, who is still sad and alone and without any dates.
I will wait to see if I hear back from Apple. As of writing… nothing.
And I’m curious what you make of all this. Have you had an experiences like this with App development? What do you think of what’s happened to the Struck team? Sound off in the comments below.
And if you want more, I decided to get in touch with Rachel and ask her a few more questions about all this. Her answers were so insightful, I decided to just include them in full below.
A Q&A with Rachel Lo, co-founder of Struck:
This is a hack question, but where did you get this great fucking idea. How did it come to you?
I was fed up with working for big tech companies and going through what felt like a big “reckoning” in my life. As my ideas of life, success, career, and relationships were being shaken up, I started turning more to astrology as a tool for introspection more than anything else.
I’ve always been a very science-focused person (I studied Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science), and used to be more opposed Eastern philosophies and traditions (which is a whole thing to unpack as an Asian kid growing up in a white community), but I started seeing the benefits to having a more readily available language to express empathy/emotions in the form of astrology.
During a break I was taking from working, a friend mentioned that she wished she could just see people who had birth charts that meshed with hers, and it clicked. There have of course been other apps that have done things like this, but none in a modern, fun, approachable way (one app I respect for doing this, Align, came before its time and shuttered in 2016).
I realised that the types of people who find value in astrology tend to be more open-minded and empathetic, making the app self-screening in a way that other dating apps aren’t.
When did you start working on it? And how many months from starting work on it, till rejection?
I started independently in August 2019, and started adding team members in September 2019. We started testing our app via a private TestFlight beta program in January 2020, and opened it up for public beta testing in early April 2020.
We tested for a while to make sure our app was polished before submitting it to App Store for review in May. We then went through nine rounds of rejections as we stripped out each astrology element bit by bit over the course of a month+.
Can you fill me in on your life position when you started this? Like, am I kinda right you left your job, sick of stupid men in tech and you started working on this app? I may be way off here!
I had left a job in San Fransisco after feeling really over the tech industry and working in it for about 6 years (went straight into it after college).
I thought moving to a new tech job in LA would solve some of the ills I saw in Silicon Valley (sexism, racism, status/wealth obsession) but ended up getting unexpectedly fired by a 23 year old at the startup I joined (which is a whole other story).
I decided to take that at as a cue to take some time off, stop looking for “the next thing,” bake a bunch, and apply for an overly competitive baking competition for fun.
Once all that wrapped up, I decided to start on this project not because I saw myself as an entrepreneur (that word/title makes me cringe) but because I was sick of working for men (I’ve had exactly ONE woman in my entire chain of command my entire time working in tech) who didn’t listen to me.
Another hack question but how did it make you feel, the first rejection, or hint at trouble?
At first we were just surprised to be honest. We had spent all this time worrying about the underlying business model, the quality of the design and app, and making sure we were ready to provide a good experience to our users.
Never once did we seriously consider that Apple itself would be our biggest roadblock, and that their rationale would be so totally biased/subjective.
To be fair, the guidelines for app submissions were *quietly* updated in March 2020 to include “fortune telling” as a “spam” category.
We did see one article about this, but because 1) we’re not technically a fortune telling app and 2) we were already approved in TestFlight months earlier with no issue, we didn’t think this rule would affect us. Besides, they even state in their own guidelines that there are exceptions to these rules based on a high quality or unique app experience.
And by the time it became clear you could not win, how did you feel then?
After the ninth rejection we felt totally dejected. We had taken out elements of astrology piece by piece with each of our submissions, hoping that if we “de-centred” astrology a bit, they’d be more amenable to accepting our app.
By the end, we had practically nothing related to astrology left, and they still rejected us on the same grounds.
When we replied that we actually did not have any astrology left in our app, they back-pedalled and said that it was because it was a dating app that it was considered “spam.”
(And this was despite the fact that two apple representatives actually told us over the phone that dating apps would be acceptable. We later realised that they have all these dispute conversations over the phone so that there’s no paper trail to hold them accountable for their promises.)
It just struck me as extra ironic that almost on the exact day that Apple announced their big initiatives to support underrepresented communities, they handed us this arbitrary rejection.
My appeal (the one posted on Instagram) laid out why calling astrology “spam” was offensive to female, POC, and LGBTQ+ communities, but they continued to claim that this was not a philosophical decision on their part, but rather a “business decision.”
The argument that this was purely a business decision on their part really gets to me.
An app that generates over 800 downloads in 2 weeks via TestFlight (an app that most people haven’t heard of and one that looks kind of scammy/intimidating if you’re not a “tech person”), plus downloads from multiple venture capitalists, and organic demand for broader availability, seems in no way like a “bad business decision.”
None of the feedback we received from Apple (or otherwise) was related to the app being in any way low quality or spammy itself — the issue was simply that it featured astrology.
Just roughly - how many hours have you sunk into this?
Just crunch some rough maths. Myself and my co-founder Alex have been working on this full-time since September — that’s at least 2500 man hours, but probably many more.
We’ve also had 4 other people helping us in various capacities with design, development, and consultation, amounting to at least several hundred additional hours. We’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on development and building the company, too.
Who else is in your team and what did they do?
Alex Calkins is my co-founder and the one who did the bulk of the development for the app. (He’s also the only man who has really touched the app in any way, shape, or form.) Octavia Sulea helped us develop some of the backend architecture and data processing. Amy Yousofi is our operations manager. Nadine Jane (Head-Gordon) is our astrology advisor.
Who designed the gorgeous interface?
Kristina Alford, my good friend and former colleague, did the bulk of the gorgeous brand design and website work. Alex and I then translated that into much of the app design/interface.
Okay, so part of the reason I thought a lot about your app, is a tweet I made hating on astrology and a reply I got. And what has happened to you seems this writ out large, right?
Wow - I LOVE this tweet. And YES a million times YES.
On one hand, I find myself thinking, “astrology is a silly thing to get worked up over, especially when there are such big, important issues going on in the world right now.”
But on the other hand, it angers me how deep these systems that marginalise women, POC, queer people, and any other group that’s not cis men, run in our lives.
And most people don’t even realise that somewhere in Cupertino, a white man is sitting in a conference room making decisions about what categories of apps can and cannot even exist for you to download onto your phone.
Somewhere, a team of men has decided that three or four versions of Words With Friends, littered with a dizzying number of ads, are okay, while an app that’s trying to connect people with similar interests is not.
Even if astrology is simply being used as a form of entertainment for more casual enthusiasts, this policy is saying “the people who find astrology useful / entertaining / liberating in any way do not deserve to have this moment of joy, no matter how small or menial.”
On the other end of the spectrum, astrology is a millennia-old practice deeply respected by many non-Western countries, even today. That Apple has the power to completely squash the category is alarming. Not to mention that astrology’s popularity amongst these groups means it’s more likely that these types of apps are being developed by those very people—the ones who are most often overlooked in the tech world.
And here’s the thing: Alex and I come from privileged backgrounds. We have great educations and a pretty deep familiarity with the mechanics of the tech world, having worked in it for many years. I can’t imagine what this would be like for a young or novice person working on a project like this alone in their bedroom with hopes of building something to share with others.
Where to from here with the app?
We’re going to make a fuss, we’re going to comment on Lisa Jackson’s (vice president of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives) instagram page relentlessly, and we’re going to try to make ourselves heard. But beyond that, we feel pretty powerless.
And to be honest, that’s probably how they like it. A lot of noise has been made over Apple’s anti-trust violations over the past couple of weeks because of an app called Hey being rejected from the App Store, and while I totally agree that these policies are corrupt, little has been said about this other insidious side of their policies.
This is the side that doesn’t affect the average “tech dude,” and so it’s less likely to get attention and more likely to be dismissed/ignored.
And with life? I know you been baking and donating proceeds to BLM…
I’m not sure—I have a lot of free time for the time being, which I’ve spent staying up to date on news, trying to stay engaged in whatever activism I can, responsibly attending protests, and generally not sleeping much.
I haven’t been baking as much, but the volunteer baking will definitely pick up more if we can’t get through to Apple.
Thanks Rachel. Watching and waiting with interest. And Struck fucking rules, btw. I want to see it out in the world.