“Tinder is the Grindr for straight people.”
-Interview participant, 21, gay, London.
Setting the online scene
What is it exactly about dating apps that capture our imaginations? And how do we form narratives about different apps – narratives that suggest that Grindr is more for hook-ups than long-term relationships, or that Tinder requires less commitment than Plenty of Fish?
Grindr, Tinder, and other dating and other mobile apps are one of the many ways that technology can be said to permeate life in the contemporary city. These apps are (generally) free, portable, and always available. They mix dating with social media, and they promote a sense of immediacy, right down to their design – swipe left, swipe right. They have captured the imaginations of millions of users: at last count Grindr has been downloaded over 10 million times (Grindr 2016); Tinder currently boasts 50 million users on its books, with an impressive 10 million people logging on daily (DMR 2016).
These apps have also captured the imagination of the media. To take just a few articles written this week alone, we can see the huge cultural signification these apps now command. It’s not just heterosexual coverage, either. Beyond the Telegraph’s piece on Bumble and the Guardian’s uncharacteristically breathless ‘Confessions of a menopausal nymphomaniac’, the BBC follows the growth of recent lesbian app Her, whilst U.S-based The Advocate cautions against dependence on gay dating apps.
My own research explores the ways in which dating apps might inform, or change, users’ perception of where they go, who they meet, and what they do in the city. This is especially interesting because these apps are skewed to urban populations, and the apps are the first of a generation to use GPS (global positioning systems; Wikipedia nicely sketches out the wide scope of this technology) to introduce a spatial element to matchmaking, broadcasting your physical coordinates. This allows you to be ‘mapped’ in real, as well as digital, space, for the scrutiny of other users – as well as the software developers. Some apps use this mapping as a secondary feature. Tinder, for example, is all about the ‘swipe’, with the distance of matches listed and ordered but not prioritised – perhaps because in heterosexual contexts the power imbalances are unappealing. Meanwhile, other apps foreground proximity as the unique selling point of the product. Grindr ranks men on a grid like a visual smorgasbord, ordered from closest to furthest away. This in turn leads to interesting ideas about the app as a place of visual presentation and display – a marketplace of looks.
There has been a buzz growing around mobile-based dating apps for several years now, but we should not forget that the popularisation of location-enabled dating apps only really dates back to 2009, with the launch of Grindr. This was only narrowly predated by social network FourSquare (2009), the earliest mainstream locative mobile service. FourSquare maps your location when out and about, broadcasting your location to friends to assist in meeting up. Even Google maps, the behemoth of GPS-enabled locative services, only functioned as a locative (i.e. location informed) service on mobile devices from 2008.
For my research, I specifically talk to non-heterosexual men (that includes gay and bisexual men but also MSM – men who have sex with men but who don’t identify as gay) about their use of dating and hookup apps including Grindr, Tinder, and Hornet, to explore how these apps figure in their daily lives – socially, sexually, and politically. Non-heterosexual men have a long history of social and sexual encounters via digital technology, from the list:servs and chatrooms in the early 1990s through to online institution Gaydar, founded in 1999 and now rather maligned in the face of newer mobile competition. Grindr was the first of all geolocative apps and, seven years on, has been a part of many men’s lives for long enough that they can verbalise the ways it has impacted on their day-to-day practice. What do their stories look like, and what do they tell us about mobile technology use?
Now that these locative apps are firmly embedded in popular culture, what opportunities do they raise for users – and what risks?
Beyond my own results, researchers can use these findings to theorise more widely about how different social groups might use locative media in cities. This includes not just gay men but people seeking public health services, new arrivals in the city, young people, old people, and so on. In fact, it even ties into debates about the ‘Smart City’: cities around the world (crucially not just in the Global North) are developing computer systems for processing data coming out of social media and locative apps in order to gather information about their urban population and cater for them accordingly. The scenario can be seen as transformational or chilling, depending on how you look at it. So my research exists as a way of reviewing a form of technology that is finally ‘coming of age’. Now that these locative apps are firmly embedded in popular culture, what opportunities do they raise for users – and what risks?
 The term ‘MSM’ originally comes from public health literature as an attempt to de-stigmatise HIV transmission by showing that behaviour, not identity, place individuals at risk for HIV transmission. See Young & Meyer (2005) for history of the term, as well as arguments about overuse of the term.