Tutor note: Inspiration and selection for this article was taken from Week 3, A Sharing Ecology
Most digitally-savvy people in the modern Western world would have heard of the social networking app Grindr. Whether you use Android or iPhone, or you’re gay or straight, you probably know Grindr as ‘that app (read: hook-up platform) that gay guys use’. But most people don’t know that it has been around years before the likes of Tinder, Hinge, and Bumble burst onto the scene. Grindr isn’t just ‘the gay Tinder’, or a ‘hook-up app’. One could analyse Grindr as one of the most successful original social-networking apps that uses GPS technology to meet new people nearby.
Not only has Grindr paved the way for the adaptability and popularity of apps like Tinder, but this internet-based platform has truly transformed the way we socialise and date in 2020. One can just look to the declining relevance of gay bars due to Grindr (Renninger, 2018) as an economic transformation, or the epitome of US-China surveillance concerns through the American buy-back of Grindr in 2020 as a political event. Yet it is the transformative social and cultural effects within and outside the LGBT+ community that renders Grindr a truly transformative entity. This essay will argue that not only has Grindr completely reinvented the way that queer people interact in less than a decade, but has further catalysed the transformative Dating App revolution across genders, sexualities and cultures.
What is Grindr, and how did it begin?
To start, we need to dig a little deeper than the App Store search results to really understand what Grindr is. According to their website, Grindr markets itself as
“The world’s largest social networking app for gay, bi, trans and queer people”
The app was first launched on March 25, 2009 by Israeli-born Joel Simkhai in Los Angeles (Jaque, 2017). Simkhai lived as a closeted teenager in the 90’s in a conservative New York suburb with his Jewish family, using AOL to chat with other gay guys across America. As other men lived in states as far west as Wyoming, the impracticality of 1990’s AOL for in-person encounters left Simkhai yearning for a better alternative. Dissatisfied with the gay bars of Tel Aviv in 2008, Simkhai returned to the US and began developing Grindr for iOS, following the launch of the second generation iPhone 3G (Jaque, 2017).
Grindr premiered as a free download, giving message function access to 100 users nearby. An in-app purchase of a $2.99 USD monthly subscription allowed users to access 200 users nearby without advertising, a tiered service delivery model that Grindr still operates under today, with Grindr XTRA and Grindr Unlimited. In its first year on the App Store shelves, Grindr garnered a 500,000 strong user base. Today, the app has grown to tens of millions of users worldwide.
How is Grindr changing the way we live?
Grindr has not only transformed the lives of queer people, but also catalysed the Dating App revolution. Grindr replaced the need for queer people to live in gay villages, particularly in urban centres, or in proximity to gay bars and social venues to meet each other (Renninger, 2018). Queer individuals can connect with each other without the need to leave one’s home, allowing the borders of enclosed LGBT communal spaces to be expanded to include closeted, suburban, regional, rural and international queer users.
As a platform for casual sex, Grindr has reinvented the traditional gay ‘beat’ model of casual encounters, where random public places like bushland or toilet blocks became hook-up hotspots. One example, the infamous Marks Park beat in Bondi, Sydney, ironically became the perfect target for gay-bashing hate crimes in the 1970s to 2000s. Over 30 historical murders have been linked to these ambushes at NSW gay beats. Now, casual encounters are readily accessible in one’s pocket, without the need for risky public encounters that violate the public decency laws of many jurisdictions. Despite Grindr elevating public safety in removing the need for ‘beats’, the app can still be used today for wicked hate-crimes, such as the 2020 murder of a Canberran man by three teenagers.
As a catalyst for the Dating App revolution, Grindr came 3 years before its competitor and heterosexual-inclusive successor Tinder, which also uses GPS technology to connect users to potential ‘matches’ nearby. Similar to the original cascading 3×4 Grindr grid that descends in order of user proximity, Tinder catches all users within a defined radius and displays their cards according to a compatibility algorithm. Apps like Grindr helped normalise the smartphone dating sensations of apps like Tinder, Bumble, Jack’d, Scruff and Hinge (Sanchez, 2016). Today, smartphone dating has exploded in popularity, thanks to apps like Grindr, becoming a cultural standard in 2020 that has generated thousands of long-term relationships and marriages.
Who owns it, and who can access my data?
For our business savvy readers, Grindr is a privately owned Limited Liability Company (LLC), based in West Hollywood, California, operating under United States Law. Originally founded and owned by Joel Simkhai, Simkhai sold a 60% stake in the company to Chinese game development company Kunlun Tech for $93 million USD in 2016. In 2018, Kunlun purchased the remaining 40% of the company, rendering the American-based Grindr as a Chinese-owned app.
Grindr’s Chinese ownership came under scrutiny of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) during the Trump administration in 2019, as its 2016 and 2018 acquisitions had not been formally reviewed by CFIUS. Amidst a heightened paranoia of Chinese surveillance of American citizen data, particularly with foreign access to users’ personal information, HIV status and location, Kunlun succumbed to US demands. Kunlun sold its 99% stake in the company back to the American-owned San Vincente Acquisitions for $608 million USD in 2020. In June, Reuters exclusively published that San Vincente has personal and financial ties to Kunlun.
Grindr as a digital business
Grindr LLC as a private company exists solely as its own digital entity. In 2020, Grindr partnered with safety app company UrSafe to help users in dangerous encounters to alert law enforcement and share their location with family and friends. Grindr’s competitors include the dating app mega-monopoly Match Group, parent company of Tinder, Match.com, OkCupid and Hinge. Further competitors include Perry Street Software, owners of Jack’d and Scruff, and Bumble. Digital suppliers include Apple and Google Android for providing the platforms that developers code within, in languages such as Python and HTML5. Financial capital is sourced from shareholders, advertisers, and user subscriptions.
Regulators recently involved with Grindr include the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation over privacy complaints, the Norwegian Consumer Council and CFIUS. Law enforcement agencies also cooperate with Grindr to prosecute users for criminal activity, such as this sting operation in Wollongong in 2018.
Grindr’s consumer market has expanded from homosexual men to queer people at large. Cisgendered men (bisexual, queer, gay, questioning/undefined sexualities), as well as Transgendered men (Female-to-Male) and Transgendered women (Male-to-Female) make up the majority of the Grindr user base. Non-binary, gender fluid, two-spirit and pansexual people also use the app. Interestingly, heterosexual men also use Grindr, to satisfy homo-curiosity or meet Transgendered women (Saraiva, dos Santos, & Pereira, 2020). Commercial users of Grindr include software developers and advertisers, with separate business accounts where they can design and launch advertising campaigns on a defined budget.
Where does Grindr fit into the digital, economic and social architectures of 2020?
How Grindr transforms the lives of queer and non-queer people
At the essence of this essay is the way Grindr has transformed the lived experiences of queer people. Generations of queer men in the decades following the 2010s will attribute apps like Grindr to their first love, first sexual experience, or even their marriages. Drs. Goedel and Duncan from the School of Population Health, NYU published such findings on Grindr usage patterns in 2015. Of the 92 men in the Atlanta metro area who completed the in-app survey, 38% used the app to primarily find new sexual partners, 17% used Grindr to make friends, and 14% used Grindr to find a boyfriend (Goedel and Duncan, 2015). Users on average had 3 dating apps on their phone and spent 90 minutes a day on Grindr, sending around 21 messages (Goedel and Duncan, 2015).
So, can the gay ‘hook-up culture’ of Grindr account for the rise in ‘hook-up culture’ in heterosexual apps like Tinder?
Mainstream academic analysis of Grindr posits the app as primarily a hook-up app with the primary end goal of continuous no-strings-attached casual sex. New scholarship into Grindr suggests an alternate analysis, where sex becomes the mechanism for connection and bonding (Race, 2015). Thus Grindr facilitates a script reversal from traditional heteronormative coffee-shop and dinner date domains into the possibility of sex on the first encounter, whereby physical intimacy is established before romantic endeavours are pursued. This practice commonly known as ‘hook-up culture’, is shared across sexualities and genders. LeFebvre (2017) argues that Tinder’s replication of Grindr’s GPS and Instant Messaging features has something to do with this. Belgian researchers found that heterosexual Tinder users also use hooking-up on first meet, rather than dating, as a mechanism for the formation of committed relationships (Timmermans & Courtois, 2018). Perhaps we can attribute Grindr to the mainstream ubiquity of dating app ‘hook-up culture’ after all.
Grindr is also capable of being a far-reaching political tool. In the 2019 Federal Election, the ALP ran Grindr ads against a Liberal candidate who made homophobic comments as a ‘No’ voter. During the 2012 US Election, Grindr ran ads endorsing pro-LGBT candidates. And as a result of the 2020 Black Live Matters rallies worldwide, Grindr also removed its Ethnicity filter, after users complained about the company’s hypocrisy in supporting #BlackLivesMatter while passively allowing the proliferation of casual and sexual racism on its platform.
Trouble in queer paradise
When Jewish-American Joel Simkhai created Grindr in 2009, he probably didn’t imagine its ability to become a platform for racial segregation, sexual racism and casual discrimination. Yet, many users, critics and media scholars alike can all agree that racism, femme-phobic, HIV-positive-phobic and fat-phobic discrimination is rife on the app. Despite Grindr launching Grindr 4 Equality, an international advertising campaign promoting the rights and health of LGBT people in places such as North Africa and the Middle East, racial and sexual inequalities ironically run deep through the app’s subculture.
Queer sociologists would argue the main reason for racial injustice on Grindr comes down to the prizing of Whiteness in gay culture (Daroya, 2017). As homosexuals exist as a sexual minority within a heteronormative world, the most prized and accepted queer people in media representation are largely those with the most structural privilege; Caucasian, cisgender, males (Daroya, 2017). One’s erotic value, as a muscular, white, gay male would be ranked much higher than an Asian or Black, gay male, or transgendered person. Therefore, the users with lower erotic values than the prized white male will often become susceptible to racist messages, ignored messages, blocks and discrimination (Conner, 2018). And Grindr’s function as a hook-up platform often gives a false sense of permissibility to racism under the guise of sexual preference.
Arguably as a damage control measure, Grindr launched the Kindr campaign in 2018, a series of interviews, advertisements and PSAs across its platform to condemn racism, fat-phobia, femme-phobia and transphobia, in partnership with GLAAD and the National Center for Transgender Equality. However, with articles as recently as last month being published providing public comment on the ongoing discrimination ethnic minorities face on Grindr, it seems that a sub-cultural upheaval will take a lot more than a PR campaign.
Access denied: Where you’ll need to opt for the beat or bar instead
Even in 2020, Grindr isn’t safe to be used everywhere. Homosexual activity is still punishable by death in 8 countries, and is criminalised in 72 countries. It therefore comes as no surprise that Grindr is banned in Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Egypt, China, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine and Russia. This has not stopped Grindr users in the past bypassing local laws through VPN access to the app. Grindr themselves have also added a Discreet App Icon feature, where individuals can disguise their Grindr app as a to-do list or a calculator (for Android users).
Wrapping it up, and logging out!
By the end of this essay, it should be clear to see how Grindr has transformed the way queer people interact, reaching for their pockets to meet new matches, and encouraging their heterosexual counterparts to do the same, through the skyrocketing popularity of similar apps like Tinder. Grindr has mainly transformed how queer people interact with each other, for better, through an increase in connectivity, public safety, accessibility and community building, and for worse, with rampant racism, discrimination, and even crime. Grindr has become a tool for political messages, a pawn in the US-China cyber-security war, and a thriving business with $86 million USD revenue in 2019. However, it has also transformed the way heterosexuals form relationships through their adaption of ‘hook-up culture’ in their Tinder usage.
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