It’s like online dating, version 2.0, and spartan in its focus: the range of potential matches is measured in distance from your present location instead of a questionnaire, and all you have to go on is a picture, a few bare lines of text, and the option to chat. So, it’s not really basic at all.
It’s Grindr, a free phone app that offers, gay, bi and curious men the ability to browse profiles of men in the same area—like a geocaching treasure hunt, but the potential prize is a consensual booty call. There are similarly minded apps for different sexual orientations, but Grindr remains the flagship of geosocial networking applications—which isn’t the most erotic tech term, but this kind of app is changing the way we meet each other, be it for friendship or for more salacious encounters.
Jaime Woo, author of Meet Grindr, was introduced to the app soon after its launch.
“It was June 2009, so just three months after it came out,” Woo recalls. “It was just this kind of shock and this amusement; you wanted to applaud, because it just seemed like such a clever idea. To merge GPS-capability with cruising. To create a hook-up app that really brought cruising into the contemporary age. So I was fascinated with it, and like a lot of my friends, we were using it a lot.”
By the time Woo started writing his book, the app had four and a half million users worldwide. Though his own writing often focuses on how technology and culture interact, he’d been waiting for something to come out that discussed its ramifications until inspiration came at a games conference in San Francisco.
“While I was there I was turning on Grindr, and all of a sudden a lightbulb went off in my head,” he says. “I was like, wait a second, I’m at a games conference, I’m using Grindr … could Grindr be a game? Is it like Farmville or any other of those things you spend a lot of time using every day and loving?
“And that’s what gave me the real inspiration to tackle the book, and look at the design elements of Grindr. To frame it as a game, and think about rules and players and really lay this all out. Because that’s the self-awareness and unpacking of the app I really hadn’t seen anywhere. People would talk about if they liked using it, or some of the stories they had on it, but nobody’s really saying, well, what does it mean that we’re letting this app into our lives, for an hour and a half a day?”
That last statement is fact, too: the average Grindr user is on it for 90 minutes a day. That sort of time commitment, and its worldwide user count, lets Grindr cast a large shadow over apps like Blendr (a similar idea, but for men seeking women and women seeking men) or Tinder (which shows one match at a time, instead of having the option to browse everyone in the area). Woo’s impression of Grindr’s head-and-shoulders rise above the others is that these apps fail to take into account the difference between how straight and same-sex hook-ups happen.
“I think what those apps need to do is to better differentiate what works between gay men, or men who are looking to have sex with men, versus men who are looking for sex with women and women who are looking for sex with men,” he says. “Those are very different interactions: cruising culture obviously has its roots in the fact that gay sex was illegal, you could be imprisoned for it, you could lose your social status, you could be physically harmed for having gay sex, and there needs to be an anonymity to it. And for men who are looking for women, or women who are looking for men, those channels were always directed in different ways. You could go to the bar, and you could have a couple of drinks, you could take them home, and there weren’t the same repercussions as men who were having sex with men.
“And even for just hooking up, the way that women and men interact with hooking up is very different from the way men and men hook up,” he continues. “I think a lot of app designers have been quite lazy, and just said, ‘Oh this works for Grindr, let’s just target it towards men and women, and see if the exact same thing will happen.’ Well, obviously not, right? For all the articles we’ve seen about cruising culture, fundamentally, they’re still different in terms of the perception of how these things are supposed to happen in society. Safety is obviously a big factor as well.”
Woo notes not all Grindr users are looking to hook up, necessarily. He points to research about the other reasons it was used.
“One of the top reasons was to meet new friends, or to break into the LGBTQ community,” he says. “It shows that people are trying to connect using any methods they can, including something known as a hook-up app. Because they’re trying to find their community. So, to me, that was really interesting, too: that this thing that was primarily for cruising is being used by other people for other reasons.”
Still, Grindr’s generally perceived focus—judge book by hunky cover, fire a few chats back and forth, meet, if desired—has drawn its share of champions and detractors. Mitchell Smith seems somewhere in between. He recalls getting the app close to when it came out, but he’s used it intermittently over that span, and notes its effect on hook-up and dating culture is that it takes away what would otherwise be the initial interaction.
“It’s different from walking up to someone at a bar, or walking up to someone at a show,” he says. “You only know what they look like through a photo. And it’s a little bit different than an online dating website, because you’re only going off one profile picture until they start talking to you. There’s no bio, there’s no nothing. You’re seeing someone close to you in your area, and you’re judging them based off a photo—if they even have a photo—and then you’re asking them what they look like. If they post a photo without their face in it, you’re asking for a face picture.”
That said, he agrees there are other applicable uses for the app.
“I think it’s a good app to meet people,” he says. “I can definitely say I’ve met a few really good people off of it. I’ve made a few friends that I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise, just by talking to them and falling into a friendship after that. It’s definitely not just for hook-ups, it’s not just for dating.”
Grindr’s associations with hook-up culture, though, were a deterrent to Andrew Eirich, who was introduced to the app, “hilariously enough, from a straight girl that I didn’t even know,” he says. “She was telling me, ‘Oh, my friends are on here, you should get it.’ And then she described it, and immediately I was like, ‘That is of absolutely no interest to me.'”
“It combines a lot of things that people are really uncomfortable with,” he continues. “I think it combines the issue of privacy, I think it combines also an issue of rejection and judgment, and I think, also, it affects people’s emotions as well. You watch Sex in the City, and it was obviously a classic of the ’90s, and triumphant in how it describes people’s relationships and stuff, and I think that there’s a lot of truth to saying you can’t necessarily hook up all the time and be perfectly happy. I think the fact that Sex and the City made that pop culture, and made people understand that more, and that’s how I’ve always kind of seen it too. ”
Still, Grindr’s influence over the culture of dating and hook-ups seems to be in no danger of dissipating. If anything, it’s more likely to ramp up as smartphone culture becomes ubiquitous—which, to Woo, suggests a need for more thought and discussion on why it is we’re drawn to using them.
“We have to remember that Grindr is only four and a half years old, and yet it has such a cultural permeation,” he says. “But we have to think about what these apps are doing, and why we use these apps.”