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culture

Arguing for the Cultural Importance of Grindr

In Meet Grindr, author Jaime Woo writes that the gay hookup app doesn't get the respect it deserves.

Meet Grindr's cover image

Meet Grindr‘s cover image.

Local writer and video game designer (and former Torontoist contributor) Jaime Woo says he wanted to write a book about Grindr, in part, because everyone he spoke to about it had something to say.

“There hasn’t been a person I’ve talked to, who knows what Grindr is, who doesn’t have an opinion about it,” he says.

Launched in 2009, Grindr is an app that allows gay, bisexual, and bi-curious men to find each other using smartphone GPS technology. Once a user sees a man he likes, he can message him, and the two can make plans to hang out, hook up, or anything in between. According to Woo, the app has roughly 78,000 users in Toronto alone. In his new book, Meet Grindr: How One App Changed the Way We Connect, Woo examines the ways that Grindr has altered gay culture in just a few short years.

“The only thing I can think of [that’s had a similar impact] is Google Maps,” he says. “You don’t see tourists pulling out these giant maps anymore, they’re getting turn-by-turn directions…It gives them a sense of control of their environment, and I think in a way, Grindr pulls in some of the same things…It modernized cruising for the smartphone age.”

Woo says the sexual nature of Grindr prevents it from getting the respect it deserves.

“Culturally, we don’t find things that deal with sex so frankly to be relevant,” he says. “It came out two weeks after Foursquare. It was monetized before Foursquare. I think it has a clearer vision of what it’s trying to be than Foursquare. But yet Foursquare takes this kind of place in locative services that Grindr doesn’t have. I thought it was important to give this app its due.”

A Grindr user himself, Woo says that writing the book taught him a lot about how the app is used. Early in his Grindr career, he was focused on establishing compatibility prior to meeting people. According to Grindr founder Joel Simkhai, whom Woo interviewed, that’s the incorrect approach. On Grindr, you meet first and figure out compatibility later.

“[Simkhai] said that it’s about connecting with someone quickly, meeting them as soon as you can, and leaving that assessment of compatibility and chemistry to the in-person meeting,” Woo says. “That opened things up for me a lot, because you scrutinize people in a different way.”

An illustration from the book.

He adds that while it’s primarily used for hooking up, Grindr has other, off-label uses as well. Twenty per cent of men in a 2012 study were using the app primarily to make friends. Users often log on just to kill time.

“I know of women who go on Grindr and use it just for the eye candy,” he says. “And who can blame them? There are some good-looking guys on there that you can just flip through…It’s so ephemeral and so location-based that it does work as a time-killer, because that set of guys is changing all the time.”

“It’s like a slot machine. It hooks us with this idea of a random payout.”

Grindr isn’t without its downside. The “Douchebags of Grindr” Tumblr is full of profiles of men who state their preferences in terms of race, body type, and perceived masculinity in the ugliest ways possible. Woo says that these problems aren’t exclusive to Grindr, but are issues in the queer community as a whole. The app just throws them into sharper relief.

“You get one picture, and your profile can only be 120 characters,” he says. “That’s not a lot of room to flesh out who you are. I think a lot of men come to Grindr thinking it’s going be some sort of panacea…that it will be an exception to the problems we have in broader queer culture, but because of its reductive nature, it actually exacerbates it.”

Writing Meet Grindr led Woo to a conclusion. Grindr may have changed the way queer men pick up, but it shouldn’t be used in isolation.

“It’s like sugary cereal,” he says. “It’s Cookie Crisp. You can’t have it all on its own, it has to be part of a complete breakfast. If Grindr is the only way you meet men, you’re really missing out on a lot of things that could be quite healthy for you.”

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