Is Grindr Turning You Into a Wanker?
Attitude, December 2012
Josh, a 26-year old postgraduate student in London, speaks as quickly as a hummingbird flaps its wings, and sways his hips as if he were an extra in a Rihanna video. Wearing various shades of purple and sipping an Earl Grey tea at Starbucks, he accepts that he is the ‘fem’ in the well-worn Grindr phrase, ‘no fems, no fats, no Asians’.
‘I once saw a profile that said, “If your wrist is broken don’t contact me”,’ he says. ‘Overtly, people are asking you for masculinity, and it’s kind of hostile. Sometimes you feel like everybody’s job on Grindr is to make you feel bad.’
But even guys attracted to Josh’s boyish good looks and dramatic flair can, in a matter of moments, transform from friendly suitors into nasty belligerents. On a recent Wednesday evening, Josh lay in bed scrolling through Grindr profiles when ‘a thirtysomething of average looks’ messaged him. After a few minutes, Josh, who had a Gender Studies lecture to attend early the next morning, logged off and went to sleep. ‘It was a very initial conversation,’ he says. ‘But when I woke up I had three messages from him: “Where are you? What’s your problem? You’re such an asshole”.’
In the world of Grindr, where sex comes easy and where harsh rejections come even easier, users frequently exude a negativity that makes Medusa look cuddly. From epic power struggles over who will share their face pics first, to profiles that turn away more people than a bouncer in a bad mood, the tone of conversation has taken a decidedly abrasive turn.
Sit in London’s Soho with the app loaded and you’ll encounter a sea of profiles that broadcast what users don’t want rather than what they do want. They exclude huge numbers of people before a conversation even starts. For instance, during a recent visit to Balans cafe in Soho, profiles within 2,000 feet included taglines like ‘No one under 5’10’, ‘Twink-free zone’, and ‘No fats n no bears. Pls be healthy n clean n have fresh breath’. Others seemed to take delight in putting people down: ‘Beef not mince’, Act like a man. Be a man. If I wanted camp I would have gone for girls’, and ‘Does anyone on here have a symmetrical face?’ This cookie, from a 26-year-old who goes by the username Buns, suggests bitterness following a few trips around the block: ‘Will not respond to alcoholics, workaholics, sexaholics, commitment-phobics, peeping toms, megalomaniacs, emotional fuckwits, or perverts’.
That spite carries over into messages, too. David Linton, a 42-year-old whose Grindr profiles describes him as ‘big, hairy and ginger’, says he has received responses from people that say, ‘Fuck off you fat bastard’. It’s a pretty ludicrous reaction given that he initiates conversations with a simple hello. ‘They could be more positive and say they are only into fit, defined, muscular guys, which a lot of people do,’ he says of the haters. ‘I think it’s a nicer way of putting it.’
Amid all the verbal bitch-slaps, it’s easy to assume that Grindr’s buh-buh-beep somehow turns users into bastards. But Joel Simkhai, the founder and chief executive of Grindr, rejects that idea. ‘Grindr is a reflection of the overal gay community, so there is the good and the bad,’ he tells Attitude. ‘This is not a community of all your best friends and their connections. This is a community of people you’re hoping to know, so behavior reflects what happens in the club.’
He has a point. All dating platforms—from old school desktop sites like Gaydar and Manhunt to more recently launched smart phone apps like Scruff and Mister—have their share of duds and studs, heroes and zeroes. Grindr gets a bad rap largely because it’s far and away the most popular—and most talked-about—location-based dating service for gay men. More than 4 million people have downloaded it globally—including people in every country in the world except the tiny South Pacific nations of Nauru and Tuvalu—and users exchange more than 7 million chat messages per day. London, currently Grindr’s biggest market, has more than 350,000 users; New York and Paris follow with around 200,000 users each. There’s simply a larger pool of potential jerks than at your local gay bar.
But Grindr, like all dating sites, may stoke aggression through the relative anonymity it provides—and the block function that literally makes the rejected disappear. ‘There is a complete insulation from any kind of negative consequence such as an angry reaction or even seeing the hurt or shock in someone’s eyes,’ says Joseph Cilona, a clinical psychologist and life coach in New York City. ‘There is also no danger of being judged by others that might be present. How many times have you heard someone say “You’re too fat,” “You’re too fem,” or “I don’t like Asians” in a real-world environment? Now consider how many times you’ve heard or seen these and similar statements on Grindr.’
Rejection in an online space hurts less than it does in a club or bar, where a stranger has more information with which to judge you, and where it takes greater courage to broach a conversation. But, Cilona says, the frequency of rejection and harsh criticism on Grindr and other apps can compound the negative effects of rejection—especially on sensitive souls. That could turn a frustrated user into someone ready to lash out at the smallest slight.
Psychologists believe that the authors of unwelcoming profiles hope, on some level, to boost and protect their own self-esteem. ‘Someone who feels insecure about his desirability and has aggressive tendencies may view an inquiry from someone he deems unacceptable or unattractive as an insult to him,’ says Kali Munro, a Toronto-based psychotherapist who consults online. ‘He may think, “What makes you think I’d be attracted to you? You’re ugly, do you think I’m ugly too?” and then respond with aggression.’
Ambiguity may also contribute to the incredibly direct, snippy comments, according to Jed Brubaker, a PhD candidate in Informatics at the University of California Irvine who studies the consequences of using Grindr. If in a bar someone you’re chatting up excuses himself to make out with a twink, you have a degree of finality. But when someone suddenly ignores you in the middle of a conversation on Grindr you’re left in limbo, wondering what you said—and whether he’ll be coming back soon. Getting to the point quickly, even if somewhat crassly, gives the sender a sense of authority and control.
Other factors that contribute to the short tempers and bad moods stem specifically from the use of smart phones. In the olden days, circa 2008, gay men relied on desktop computers to facilitate hook-ups. Sites like Gaydar and Manhunt typically connected two men communicating from fixed locations. Enter Grindr in March 2009, and suddenly the gays started flirting on-the-go via their mobiles. ‘If you’re both in the city, where are you gonna hook-up?’ Linton asks. ‘Your place or his? Can he accommodate? How long is he going to be at work? There’s a lot more to negotiate—and that brings more stress.’
Asynchronous communication—psychology’s fancy term for conversations that don’t take place in real time—fuels confusion about how relations are progressing. Josh—he who despises users who are only interested in ‘str8 acting guys’—admits that he can be insensitive with others’ time and expectations. ‘I’m a lazy Grindr user who everyone loves to hate. I say “Hey!” and then I log off,’ he says. ‘It’s on my iPhone. I look at it between classes, and when I’m walking home. The phone runs out of batteries, I go meet friends, I meet somebody else and go hook up with him instead.’
Flighty singletons aren’t exclusive to Grindr. In a place like London, where gay men are spoiled for choice, there’s a distinct sense of always looking for the next best thing. But users believe that Grindr, more than any other app, breads impatience and misunderstanding. Its well-known technical issues with undelivered and delayed messages are part of the problem. Simkhai says that he didn’t dream up the original Grindr app with the current volume of users in mind. He’ll launch Grindr 2.0 in the coming months, and believes it will sort out those issues.
Experienced and more sexually adventurous users complain that Grindr’s popularity attracts too many amateurs, who are more likely to be timewasters. Mark, a 32-year old who describes himself as ‘a sex addict’ who gets off at least twice a day, says the fact Grindr does not require e-mail registration is part of the issue. ‘You get a lot more bisexual people on Grindr,’ he says. ‘It’s an easier way into the gay world.’ As such, married and bi-curious men clutter his dashboard. They are usually too timid to meet, may get their thrills from chat alone and invariably hide their faces. He estimates that around 60% of the people who message him are faceless wonders—and therefore a waste of his time. The sheer volume of Grindr profiles can put him on edge, too. ‘It’s like going to T.K. Max. It’s just filled with cheap junk, and you really have to dig to find a Prada leather jacket.’
Perhaps the greatest source of conflict, however, stems from the lack of space to define oneself in the Grindr profile. As a result people frequently initiate conversations with people completely ill suited for them. Currently users can post one public photo and have 120 characters to describe themselves—essentially reducing them to top or bottom, to those who seek no-strings-attached hook-ups and those who want more. But on the rival app Mister, which now counts around 500,000 users, members can upload three photos and have 3,000 characters to say who they are. That allows members to engage with each other based on shared interests like music or sports rather than sexual position alone.
Carl Sandler, the founder of Mister, believes that more information reduces tension and boosts the likelihood of a harmonious pairing—whether for sex or friendship. ‘It’s part of our mission to value our members beyond their abdominals,’ he says. Small changes in context may impact how users behave on an app, too. Mister members are encouraged to sign a code of conduct that emphasises respect, honesty, safety and maturity. Those that agree have a badge placed on their profile. ‘It’s a little heavy handed, but it lets people they need to be a douche bag somewhere else,’ he says. ‘When you come here you need to be your best self.’
For sub-communities within the gay community, niche apps provide a welcome alternative to the more mainstream Grindr. David, the red-headed bear, says he lets less grief on alternative sites that cater to his look. ‘People are nicer on Scruff than Grindr,’ he says. ‘It’s more hair-oriented so people are looking for that type of person.’ Grindr seems to understand that. The forthcoming update will feature community tabs for ‘bears, jocks, twinks and muscles.’
Regardless of the app—and regardless of how niche they become—conflict will always be par for the course. Psychologists agree that the only way to avoid being on the receiving end of someone’s app aggression is to log off entirely. However, framing troublesome experiences in specific terms can help you avoid undue frustration, and make you more resilient to rejection.
Cilona, the clinical psychologist in New York, encourages users to remember a very basic point. ‘People who are mean-spirited, critical and judgmental are always deeply insecure, self-loathing, and often fearful,’ he says. ‘There are no exceptions to this. It’s about them, not you.’ By acting in a way that makes you feel good about yourself regardless of how others treat you, you will become less sensitive to those men behaving badly. It’s also useful to remember that Grindr is a powerful tool to instantly see someone’s shortcomings. Would you really want to waste your time getting to know an unkind prick anyway?
Back at Starbucks, his teacup now empty, Josh offers slightly harsher advice: lower your expectations. ‘You’re throwing your hat into a really competitive ring,’ he says. ‘No matter what you look like, no matter how nice you are, you have to acknowledge a huge amount of criticism and rejection.’ He loads his Grindr to the sound of bu-bu-beep and the sight of red dots on his cascade of profiles. ‘I have four people messaging me right now,’ he says. ‘It’s not possible for me to consistently message each of these people with equal respect. To some extent you have to accept that.’