When the gay social-networking iPhone app Grindr — which allows men to use GPS data to find, chat with, and ideally meet up with other men — was first released in March 2009, no one quite knew what it would become. This was, after all, when location-based technology was still relatively new and when flip-phones were the norm. Even as the highly trafficked gay website Queerty heralded the obvious brilliance of the idea, it noted that the jury was still out as to whether it’d ever take off.
Fast-forward to today, when the app boasts more than two million users, with upwards of 45,000 online at any given moment. It has spread to almost two hundred countries, as well as iPad, Android, BlackBerry, and iPod touch platforms. (Last year, the company released a watered-down version for straight people, with many of the original app’s overtly venal features taken out and a more explicit focus on friendship and networking. It was, by most analyses, a failure.) But, regardless, Grindr is still a force to be reckoned with: A couple weeks ago, it won for Best Location Application at TechCrunch’s annual Crunchies Awards. Vanity Fair, the Washington Post, and just about every other major news outlet has covered it, and the website Celebrifi even went so far as to declare it the “biggest change in gay hookups since the hanky code.”
Which may not be much of an exaggeration. Statistics aside, an informal poll of about ten gay men — most of whom are single, in their twenties, and live in the Bay Area — reveals that more than three-quarters of them have at least browsed the app, though there’s quite a range as to what they’ve done with it: One has had several sexual and romantic encounters with men from the site, while another sees it mostly as novelty and has never actually worked up the courage or energy to meet with someone. Another’s been dating someone he met on Grindr for several months. Regardless, though, they all agreed that the app is practically ubiquitous in their social circles — and that has both benefits and drawbacks.
For one thing, many argue that Grindr has served to further legitimize casual sex — which can be a good or bad thing, depending on where you’re coming from. Though anonymous sex has always played a role in gay life, there’s something about having a popular iPhone app created for explicitly that purpose that brings the phenomenon to the fore. And especially for Grindr’s core audience — the generation of gay men who came of age during and after the AIDS crisis of the Eighties, who were effectively scared out of anonymous sex by a cavalcade of PSAs, sex-ed lessons, and very special episodes — the app serves to de-stigmatize casual hookups. (After all, one man told me, as sleazy as it may feel, Grindr is still a self-selecting crowd by virtue of the fact that you have to have a smartphone to use it.) But in doing so, some argue that Grindr masks the dangers inherent in anonymous sex — dangers which are still very real. “I’d be more of a fan of Grindr if it also revealed that, just 4,000 feet away, you can get a free, anonymous HIV test at this clinic …. But, alas, I don’t think this is encouraged or condoned by Grindr,” said one user, an HIV/AIDS educator.
At the very least, Grindr has come under the same praise — and the same criticism — that all online dating platforms do: It has made finding a potential friend, sex partner, or boyfriend infinitely easier, and it’s allowed people who are turned off by the bar scene or orientation-specific events like softball teams or activity groups — or who just live in places with few gay bars — to find hookups elsewhere. “I know lots of people who aren’t really clubby, who would never go to, like, Bench and Bar, and they’ve found guys on Grindr,” observed one man. In that sense, it has, in a way, democratized gay hookup culture. Furthermore, as one Berkeleyan noted via email, Grindr “enables men to project themselves in new ways: they choose the sexiest pictures of themselves, they choose the identifying features, and they get to define whoever they want to be via the internet. Now, gay men can search for exactly who they want to sleep with — say, a young Asian twink who’s into BDSM — with no problem.”
But that’s not necessarily a good thing. “Opening up Grindr is basically like entering a gay-themed fast food joint and taking your pick of an extra-value meal,” one man said. And with that comes a sort of embarrassment-of-riches-induced choosiness, or perhaps an Internet-age spin on Freud’s narcissism of small differences: With so many eligible bachelors lined up in front of you — a veritable torrent of available, often shirtless guys, all within a few miles — you’re much more likely to make choices based on insignificant details. In other words, though relatively superficial factors like height, age, or a single look would never be a deal-breaker in real life, they very well may be on Grindr. “I think I’m way more picky on Grindr than I would be in real life,” said one man, “because there are just so many options. Instead of having a conversation with someone, you’re saying yes or no based on a few things.”
Moreover, some argue that Grindr can also be contrived, superficial, alienating, and indulgent of people who want to stay glued to their phones instead of going out into the world and meeting people. One Oaklander recalled walking into a notoriously cruisey bar — the kind of place where, ten or even five years ago, you would’ve been talked up immediately upon walking through the door — only to find a sea of guys fiddling with their phones in silence. (Some clubs have even introduced Grindr nights, at which patrons are encouraged, somewhat oxymoronically, to find each other through the app rather than through analog methods like, you know, talking to each other.) And on a message board, one San Franciscan noted that his gay outdoor activity group has seen steadily dropping attendance — a decrease he attributes to Grindr. “In fact I had a event one time where a few of the guys were on Grindr instead of chatting with others who were there to interact…. I was told by one guy when asked why he never shows up anymore that he doesn’t need to, he has guys contact him all the time and gets a lot of sex.”
It’s enough to make some wonder whether, sometime in the future, people will even know how to meet each other in person without having scoped each other’s profiles first.
“I can’t fathom a future where the majority of our encounters are mediated through this technology,” said one man in an email.
Because that’s the thing about extra-value meals: They may be instantly gratifying, but they’ll still leave you unsatisfied. “You just can’t replace the electricity of meeting someone in person for the first time,” he continued. “We’re all more than just one picture and some slightly-fudged identifying features. We deserve better than some well-designed iPhone app.”