Digital media and digital platforms have altered our interpersonal and social connections: instant messaging, Facebook, and texting have made face-to-face interactions a rare feat, and it was only a matter of time until relationships and sex also became digitized. Apps and websites such as OkCupid and eHarmony have capitalized on transforming virtual relationships into long-lasting, real-life relationships. However, Grindr, a gay and bisexual dating/hookup app, has taken a different approach. Grindr is notorious in the gay and bisexual community specifically because it looks to create fleeting virtual/real relationships. It openly promotes casual sex and hookups, endorsing physical attraction rather than emotional connection.
Like most social networking sites, Grindr focuses on the creation of a digital avatar that interacts with other digital avatars. Yet unlike Facebook and MySpace, which allow you to create a persona based on statuses, groups, wall posts, and “likes,” Grindr focuses more on a description of physical attributes (race, weight, height, age, and relative location), a small blurb (a headline and a brief description), and one profile photo. These limitations emphasize physicality rather than multidimensionality. The user is reduced to his basic information, while the small blurb is primarily used to describe what the user finds attractive in others.
The social connectivity between these one-dimensional users is further limited by Grindr’s network database of user profiles. While Facebook, MySpace, and OkCupid have a search bar that allows users to find other profiles, Grindr limits viewing to the 100 closest people who are online or idle. (Grindr Xtra allows users to see 300 people, but this requires the user to pay a monthly fee.) In order to see new profiles without having to pay to upgrade to Grindr Xtra, users must either reload the app to see if any new or closer users have logged on or hide unappealing profiles, which are immediately replaced by new profiles. Alternatively, if a profile catches a user’s attention, he can “star” the profile, which allows the user to see it regardless of either user’s location. For those users who are deemed unappealing or unattractive, a user can block the less desirable profile in order to find another user whom he finds more attractive, and vice versa. The limited visibility of Grindr’s user database, coupled with the limited information on profiles, makes superficial impressions and connections. Users cannot search for personal connections, but must rely on serendipitous circumstances (i.e., is the user nearby, and is he attractive?).
Grindr’s overall design limits the amount of control users have in finding new people, even influencing the ways in which users chat with one another. Unlike Facebook and MySpace, which have walls on which friends can publically interact with one another, Grindr limits interaction to one-on-one personal messaging. Chatting theoretically allows for variation in the digital experience, but inevitably constrains dialogue by repetition and redundancy. Social interaction becomes a robotic exercise, rarely straying from the following representative example (inspired by my own experiences with Grindr):
User 1: Hey/Hi/Sup
User 2: Hey/Hi/Sup
User 1: How are you? / What’s up?
User 2: I’m fine. Not doing much. You?
User 1: Same. What are you here for?
User 2: Friends and fun. You?
User 1: Same
User 2: Cool
Chatting also allows users to share photos, which in most cases are photos of a user’s face, penis, or butt. Social networking and interactions on Grindr are not based on building a database of friends, but on discovering which phrases, photos, and info pique other users’ interest. Interactions on Grindr become an automated game that requires a user to find the best way in which to warrant a reaction from another user, often reducing users to fetishized automatons.
Grindr not only endorses fetishization, it relies on it. The app creates a fraction, rather than a replication, of a person, and users are able to project their fantasies and desires onto these one-dimensional avatars. A user fetishizes an avatar’s physical attractiveness, racial categorization, nude photos, and relative location. Users can hear what they want to hear and project an image of what they believe the other person is like. Once the interaction transgresses the digital threshold into the real world, users can find instant gratification through sex, but a long-lasting relationship is more difficult to find. This is a generalization, but it is based on my own use of Grindr. Speaking from person experience, the users I have encountered—and I myself—continue to get caught up in cyclical interactions, repeating the same actions and establishing meaningless relationships that cannot move beyond the digital realm. These mechanical interactions create a self-contained fantasy that is repeated with other users who are willing to continue playing the game. Users continue to get caught up in the cyclical interactions, repeating the same actions and establishing meaningless relationships. Once two users hook up, their interactions on Grindr dwindle until the users replace one another with other people.
Though many users can surpass the social limitations of Grindr, the majority of users that I know continue to play into the limited design of the app. Grindr emphasizes the physical over the emotional, even using advertising to show all the “hot guys” and “cool guys” that users will meet once they start using Grindr. Grindr’s short-term liaisons emphasize a need to quench some short-term desires that resurge once a user reloads the app. Though some may find boyfriends, or may even quit Grindr because of their frustration with the selection of men, Grindr is a well-oiled machine that runs on and creates desire. Yet that’s all it is, a machine: the social interactions have become the cogs that run it. Grindr maintains its popularity because gay and bisexual men continue to oil the gears of the app. Though a person may quit Grindr, there are more than enough people to replace that user. The users keep on playing the “social” game, and as long as desire is unlimited, the wheels of the app continue to grind.
Jose Gallegos graduated from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, where he received his Bachelor’s in Film Production and French, and from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television, where he received his Master’s in Cinema and Media Studies. His research interests include European Modernism, the French New Wave, and Spanish Cinema under Franco.