Exclusive Interview: The founder of Unjected, a dating site for the unvaxxed, talks about why it's still growing after getting kicked off the App StoreView transcript
Name a subculture, and you will find a dating app for it. There’s Datefit for gym rats, Dine for foodies, Loosid for teetotalers, and Jdate and Christian Mingle for Jewish and Christian singles. Now in the COVID-19 era this is also a special site for the unvaxxed.
Unjected was founded as a site for dating, friendship, and community for people who feel very strongly about not getting vaccinated against coronavirus. After cropping up earlier this year, it’s already been banned twice from the App Store, most recently on July 31.
Currently, there are more than 25,000 users on the site. That’s not much compared with Tinder’s 6.7 million, but the number is growing. There have been 7,000 new members joining Unjected just within the past three weeks, connecting through Unjected’s main site or the Google Play Store.
The women behind the site, Shelby Thomson and Heather Pyle, are both first-time startup founders who felt the need to create an online community for what they call “medical autonomy.” According to Thomson, Apple’s reasons for banning Unjected were “asinine.” Unjected posted Apple’s message regarding the ban: "Specifically, your social networking app inappropriately refers to the COVID-19 pandemic in its concept or theme."
Thomson spoke about the inspiration behind Unjected, why she says politics doesn’t play a big role in the company’s mission (even though most people against getting the COVID vaccine are conservative), and how it plans to get away from reliance on traditional app download channels.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Unjected: Rejected from the App Store00:00:00
The Business of Business I would love to hear how you started your journey to Unjected and what you were doing before founding the company.
Shelby Thomson: So actually myself, I'm personally just a photographer. So I don't have any background with app developing or websites or anything like that. I just have a love of nature. But my friend, fellow mother and co-founder Heather Pyle, she's also our co-founder for Unjected. We were just seeing what was occurring with the medical segregation all over the world on social media, and we were just so intrigued by this separation.
When everything came to a head with the dating sites with the vax badges, it was just coincidence with our timing, because we were kind of already planning this whole space for people who were making a different choice anyways. And then it just spurred from there because I think people had a lot of feelings about what had happened on those other sites. And because it was good timing, and it really helped to keep a lot of interest.
You mentioned those vax badges on those sites. How do you feel about those? Is that the differentiator of Unjected, not having to worry about that, everyone has the same status?
Personally, myself, I'm married. So it wasn't like — when we were creating Unjected, we were more thinking of everyone in between, like dating, friendships, and then community, too. From what we've heard from our members that do use those sites, is first, people would put something in their caption, like, “Looking for an unvaccinated partner.” And they would be blocked for that. Or they would put a name as their profile picture, like, “Hey, swipe left if you're vaxxed,” and they would get blocked for that. And that was kind of these initial reports that we were hearing, I was like, “Oh, it's so interesting.”
“I think that we definitely have a more conservative viewpoint about personal freedom, and medical freedom, but I don't think that [users] probably associate much with politics.”
A lot of people were kind of talking about shedding and having this whole big war on social media. [Editor’s note: “Vaccine shedding” is a non-issue for COVID vaccines, according to the CDC.] And there's so many people that didn't want vaccinated partners. So instead of just catering more to not having a badge at all, it was just more like, let's avoid having to ask the question altogether. And let's just get a bunch of people that already are on the same page, because it was kind of the joke, like the 10 most important questions that you ask somebody when you first start dating them. And now in this new world, it's so hard for people because they're like, “Okay, well, first off, I've got three top questions that we have to get out of the way before we can even go on a date.” And so I just seemed to help people filter out all of that before.
How do you feel about it getting taken off the App Store? Where can people find the app now?
I guess I was not shocked that it was removed from Apple. It was an interesting turn of events, because we were working with a reporter from Bloomberg. And originally, the story was actually about how people were leaving big name dating sites for Unjected. And then it kind of shifted when she had seen some of the posts I had made on our Instagram page about censorship. After they discovered us and removed us, we did do an appeal, but Apple didn't accept the appeal. But we're still live for Google Play. So Google Play, you can still go download us and then anybody who had the app already for iOS can still use it. So it's accessible, you just don't want to re-update your phone because you might lose it. And then we also have the browser as well as just www.unjected.com. And we're going to get a lot of action there since Apple went down.
Most of your users are more on the dating side of things, but I know you also have a community side of the site as well.
It's absolutely totally split, I would say we have a really nice mixture of everyone. With the profiles that they make, they can select if they're doing dating or friendships. And then just entirely separate from the connections feature, there’s the community directory. And we have all sorts of different categories in there, from education to job opportunities, housing, beauty, and professionals go in there and close their businesses or services. We do have a couple hundred listings in the community directory. And then we have about 20,000 members on the app so far. Gosh, I haven't looked at the counts in a few days, it might be even more we got, I mean, almost 5,000 new members after the first articles came out. So people were really flocking to that. But I would say it's definitely a good mixture of people wanting to do business and also find like minded people.
“We're not just a big group of anti-vaxxers, there's so many people that totally believe in vaccination, they just don't believe in mandatory vaccination.”
Do you know of any feedback from users and how they feel about the app? And have there been any success stories with dating yet?
There have been, oh my gosh, there's actually been a few couples that have already linked up on the app and connected and had dates. I get these little really sweet messages on our old page, we had more things posted. So I haven't jumped back on that. Getting everything out there again, but yeah, there's definitely been connections. Yesterday, I just got a whole screenshot of a group of people that had met on the app, and they were in New York doing the protest earlier this week. And so they were all together, rallied together. They're like, “It's our Unjected crew.” So yeah, it's been amazing to see how fast people are finding each other.
Politics, conservatives, and being unvaccinated00:07:12
That's on that community part of the site. I know that one of the reasons the app got banned was because there was a social element.
So what we had introduced was a social network. I also had put in specially worldwide chat rooms. And that's where everyone was, it was more like a Facebook page where people were writing posts and following each other, and commenting and things like that, and just expressing their opinions, whatever those may be. And, you know, free speech.
“I'm definitely not [vaccinated]. Nope. And I never will be. But you know, if that's somebody's choice, that's definitely their freedom to do so if they feel like it helps them.”
What had happened is, when we do routine fixes to the app, we have to have it re-reviewed for the tech adjustments. And so an app tester goes through and reads everything in there. So just like a human, with their own personal opinions. And they have gone through and circled and underlined in red posts that they deemed misinformation. They emailed them to me and said, “Hey Unjected, you're supposed to delete these posts or block these users, because we don't find this to be appropriate.” They call it deceptive behavior, which is an interesting choice of words. And what had happened is, I find that asinine.
I feel like people should be able to talk about whatever they want to if they're being respectful, and not harming anyone. I wasn't going to delete these postings, and I had made my own post. I said, “Hey, guys, I just want to give you guys a friendly reminder, like, please just stay away from some of this verbiage.” And that's actually what they used against me. They said, “You're not allowed to tell people to avoid saying these words, you just need to moderate it entirely and not let it exist on your page.”
So they had screenshotted my post and sent it to me and said, “No, you're not allowed.” So those were the two areas that got us in trouble, at least that it got flagged by the powers that be? So we did make adjustments to that. Now, it's just more on the connections and community directory.
Is the user base mostly conservative, and do you see being taken off the App Store as a political issue in general?
You know, actually, ironically, I feel like most of our members probably don't even affiliate with a political party at all, they probably don't even believe in politics to begin with. But as far as maybe more conservative ideals is like, what's my body is my body, yours is yours, we're not telling you guys what to do with yourself. And we should just be having that same freedom without being subjected to — be limited from society for it. So I think that we definitely have a more conservative viewpoint about personal freedom, and medical freedom, but I don't think that [users] probably associate much with politics.
“[App testers] emailed me and said, ‘Hey Unjected, you're supposed to delete these posts or block these users, because we don't find this to be appropriate.’ They call it deceptive behavior, which is an interesting choice of words....I find that asinine.”
Do you personally associate much with politics? And if so, what's your political affiliation?
I don't know. I don't even dabble in it. I actually don't even watch the news. I only have internet, and I'll Google something every once in a while, or DuckDuckGo if somebody sends us an article on us, but no, I try to stay away.
How do you feel about the COVID vaccine in general, and are you vaccinated?
I'm definitely not. Nope. And I never will be. But you know, if that's somebody's choice, that's definitely their freedom to do so if they feel like it helps them. But we just want to make sure that people aren’t being forced into making decisions that are going against their personal beliefs when you put on the line someone's career or education, and say, “Oh, you can't participate in these parts of society unless you abide by this medical procedure.” That's when it becomes coercion. And that's not consent. It's not the same thing. We just want to make sure that everyone has the right, and they're making that choice personally, and that it's a choice, because even when this nod of approval of the FDA, when they say it's so safe, and we see this flood of mandates to come from that. It really just is going to circle back to it's a personal choice. So people shouldn't be ostracized for that.
Are conservatives more wary of the vaccine in general? What's your impression of that?
I've seen it both ways. But a lot of people make it a political stance, for sure. Like, “I am a Biden supporter, so of course I'm vaccinated,” or, “I'm not, so of course I'm not,” but really, at the end of the day, it's not a political choice, it's totally a personal medical choice. So it's interesting how it gets convoluted.
The future of Unjected00:13:19
I would love to hear what's on the horizon for the site. And will there be another appeal for getting back on the App Store?
We joked that we should make a duplicate app and call it Rejected and just submit it to Apple and see what happens. Maybe they won't figure it out for a little while. But we definitely have a lot of plans for Unjected. We’re just two moms on a mission. So as far as the technical capabilities of the app, we know it's not amazing. We call it dial-up speed. It's definitely like, just the building blocks of what it can be. At this moment, I think we're trying to figure out maybe how to transition out of these platforms like Apple and Google and getting these APK keys from the apps onto our mobile website. So people can download it and use it in a different way without being so censored. And then, of course, just enhancing the website to its capability, max potential. So, of course, that's always our more solid backup plan.
“What's my body is my body, yours is yours, we're not telling you guys what to do with yourself. And we should just be having that same freedom without being...limited from society for it.”
And then talking just financially, are you bootstrapping or is this all self-funded? Or are you raising venture capital? What's your strategy there?
Right now, it's just been out of our own pockets. But we definitely are looking for investors or people that would want to partner with us that see the mission and want to take it to the next level, because we think that it can be something super incredible. We just need a little bit more resources than we have at this moment, but we're just striving for that goal.
Founders that I talked to talk about getting the startup bug. And once they've had one, maybe it gets acquired or maybe it fails, they keep going. Do you feel like you've now gotten that bug coming outside of this and now suddenly becoming a founder? And if so, do you have advice for entrepreneurs out there?
That's a good question. I guess I'm still kind of riding the whirlwind of this, you know, of Unjected. I still have so many ideas for what I think it could branch off into, I think a lot of people want to see Unjected turn into more of a, instead of just dating, more medical. We get a lot of requests for a blood bank, because people want to have access to unvaccinated blood and organ donation, and fertility clinics, things like that. We get a lot of interest and excitement from those areas.
“I feel like most of our members probably don't even affiliate with a political party at all, they probably don't even believe in politics to begin with.”
But as far as what I would say to people is, no matter what the amount of resources that you have, or if you think that maybe you're not skilled in that area, if you have the motivation behind it, and you believe strongly in it, you can make it happen. I have literally no tech background, but I just felt it, and Heather, and I felt it just coming through us so intensely that we were just going to not stop until we figured out how to create it. So just using your voice and planting the seeds of whatever it is your idea, because there's people listening.
And how long has this journey been? At what point did you first get the idea and get started with it? How long ago was that?
Just earlier this year, after, of course, we had experienced this whole last year of silliness. And then when the vaccine rollout really became evident on social media, and it was just a blatant turn of events, it seems with everyone going one way or the other way. So we'd hopped on it earlier this year, I want to say around like the end of March, beginning of April, and then especially after Pfizer had unleashed some of their trial studies about some of the things that they had found with their data, and that kind of spurred people's interest as well. But the app became available to people at the end of May, and then two weeks later for Google. It hasn't been up that long. But it's been incredible to see how many people have flocked towards it and shared, and the outpouring of love and support has been major.
Users are meeting in person, like you said, that's definitely traction right there.
And it's amazing, when you see the picture or you hear the caption of their whatever they have to say, and you're like, wow, like, they actually found each other because of this platform or service. So, it definitely fills my cup for sure.
“We get a lot of requests for a blood bank, because people want to have access to unvaccinated blood and organ donation, and fertility clinics, things like that.”
Have there been any, that you know of, any COVID cases from people interacting in person at all, or from the app at all?
Not that I know of, at least. Yeah, I mean, I'm sure that the media would love to say that, but nothing that we've heard of. Yeah, no, we're definitely a wonderful, healthy, lovely bunch of respectful humans. The message that we always just get out is, it's just a choice. And we're supporting our bodily autonomy. We're not just a big group of anti-vaxxers, there's so many people that totally believe in vaccination, they just don't believe in mandatory vaccination. So it's an absolute melting pot of people. And we just want to make sure that people are just maintaining their civil liberties and their freedoms.