Networked Gayze: an ecological mapping of Grindr

Image Courtesy of Author

Edited screenshot

 

This paper will analyse sets of theoretical propositions and questions around Grindr’s transformative effects, and where it may be located in a broader digital networking trend. Subsequent to these observations will be a critical approach to reading the application’s effects on generations of digital communities, and the economy in which it posits more broadly.

Grindr and Pre-Mobile Modalities of Desire

The queer person has been culturally involved with the reformation of space to produce practical sites for sexual exchange between bodies deemed socially unfit for each other.

Undeniably this covert act is equal part a practice of survival.  Jack Halberstam says that such an occupation of space by the queer person obtains meaning through struggle (Halberstam, cited by Marshall, p.33, 2015).

Beats often take place in public. Using discrete locations to veil sexual acts between queer bodies, the beat occurs hidden from watchful eyes. They have remained a fixture to the imagination of queer intimacy even in our present moment, whence the internet offers new terrain for affect to be disseminated across digitally communicative networks.

Grindr is a linchpin in the ecosystem of social networking applications geared towards queer users. For the user to attain casual sex, dates or friendships, Grindr reformats the locational convention of the beat through its digital interface.

Users are given a reading of their proximity to each other in a given area, with the option to converse with other users; share text and images; and create their own profiles, which may include information on their body type, gender and ethnicity (Li, 2011). Grindr concentrates nearby bodies in to a grid that shows the user who else is using the application in their area.

The application was launched in 2009 by Joel Simkhai, an Israeli application designer – and former CEO of the company. Designed for mobile phone technology, the application initially serviced men by allowing them to set up encounters with other men quickly and with relative discretion (Li, 2011).

While Grindr has become an institution of its own within the global queer community, it is not a phenomenon without its predecessors. T.C. Sanders (2008) uses men for men, or “M4M”, chat rooms as a case for this. These sites were – much like Grindr is now – marketed towards men seeking sex with other men.

Sanders compares the “M4M” chat rooms of the early 1990s to the bathhouses of the 1960s and 70s (p.263, 2008), which were among the earlier spaces documented – in a Western context – for their facilitation of queer sexual encounters.

These earlier forms of queer digital connectivity were marked by Sanders as instruments in the exploration of gay and lesbian affectation (p.265, 2008).

From the Beat to the Geosocial Interface

In the universe of contemporary social media applications, Grindr can be located in the geosocial current that is being increasingly popularised through smart phone technology.

Moving towards spatial theory, Bonde and Veel (2018) consider that the design of many geosocial applications reflect an alternative solution to the traditional navigation of intimacy. The user coded as a “stranger” via these applications’ relieves us of the labour encountered in an otherwise ‘real world’ context (p.2, 2018) by removing the corporeal and tangible difficulties with actioning desire.

Does anonymity relax the passage through which we access this digital relationality. We could infer so by accounting for both the arbitrariness and the relatively formless digital profile, and what implications this has on the body as a mapped point.

Extending on that, we could consider this coalescence of sex, identity, labour and gaze to be the byproduct of a business agenda that conflates the body with a tradable product.

Academic Alfie Brown has written critically on the geosocial interface’s relationship to corporate giants. Brown informs us that, largely, apps like Grindr with a locative service rely on bigger infrastructures of data provided by major companies – Google or Amazon, for example (Brown, 2016).

Their service to smaller companies like Grindr extends a methodology in to their very design that proliferates what Brown calls “psycho-geographical contours” (2016).

These refer to the geosocial interface’s circulation, direction and curation of bodies of users in public spaces (Brown, 2016).

…a new pattern is emerging in which the mobile phone dictates our paths around the city and encourages us, without realizing it, to develop habitual and repetitious patterns of movement. More importantly still, such applications anticipate our very desires, not so much giving us what we want as determining what we desire

(Brown, 2016).

If we are to consider the corporate body’s role as a co-facilitator for these geosocial technologies, should it then be asked what interest they might have in whom or where we move to, in accordance with the application. Brown suggests these movements are pre-determined; consequent to these maps that are so precise because of the ways in which they use mass collections of data (2016).

Bodies can then be manoeuvred desirably by these private services that have a “God’s-eye” view over us (Veel and Thylstrup, p.48, 2018). The user assumes the position of the objectified and the objectifier. The grid that displays online users like drawing cards supposedly affirms us with a sense of agency; our gaze is masterful and unseen. Alternatively, we also comprise part of someone else’s grid, and are consequently utilised by the machine that gives another user their own sense of embodiment (Veel and Thylstrup, p.48, 2018).

Another point of contention is their filtration of users. How does the algorithm operate to select and exclude; make visible and invisible.

Returning to Veel and Thylstrup, “these devices are entangled in a web of algorithmic logics” (p.48, 2018). When considering what makes a locative user experience appealing, do we assume that location itself has some baring on our attraction to the other people interacting with the application.

“The automation of location information on mobile dating apps reveals that what is sought is not only the identity markers that profile owners themselves provide” (Veel and Thylstrup, p.45, 2018).

These critiques direct us to the question of how and why do we interact with the strangers that we do online. Is it by mere chance that particular profiles are shown to us – or that others are not.

The geosocial interface is ripe for questions of design when we analyse its automated features (Veel and Thylstrup, p.44, 2018).

How do we automate desire. How do we program empathy in to this existing configuration. Who is to blame when the algorithm categorically negates populations of users because it was deemed viable in accordance with the subjective standpoints of others’.

It is thus necessary that we interrogate the ethical parameters of the geosocial technology as we engage with it.

Grindr… In Action: Transformative Impacts

Ruben Gallo (2016) wrote that apps like Grindr, in their assemblage of subjectivity, are part of a twenty-first century phenomena.

The very usability of Grindr renders its users as designers of their sexual encounters and their partners. It does so by blending imagery with statistics; photographs of bodies to correspond with the information provided on their profile (Gallo, 2016).

 

Image(s) courtesy of author.

(Edited screenshots taken of blank profiles and display grid)

 

TALL/MASC4MASC/FIT GUYS ONLY.

Height: 6’1″

Body Type: Toned

Pronouns: Dude.

Not only has Grindr altered methodological approaches to intimacy, it has offered new means for its users to develop selfhood and community.

The now international pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) scheme has proliferated the discourse on HIV prevention for men having sex with other men (Goedel, et al., p.133, 2016). Applications like Grindr that enable hook-ups between men have been dually-purposed as facilitators of information on these initiatives, aiding their proliferation.

Grindr has been instrumental in research that has bettered medical practitioners’ knowledge of HIV in this moment; what the risks are of transmission; and what variables are affecting those who are deemed more likely to be infected (Goedel, et al. p.133, 2016).

With six million users worldwide, Grindr has come to offer researchers experiential accounts of the varying natures of sexual contact between men and differently-gendered folks who are using the app.

An example of this has been demonstrated by a survey conducted in Los Angeles, which sought to interview 146 Grindr users on the kind of sex they were having. Twenty per cent reported unprotected sex was occurrent for them with their last partner.

Furthermore, the report told them that the count of sexual partners per person was increasing potentially due to the vast amount of users, which subsequently evidenced a correlation between increased risk of HIV exposure and the app’s usage (Goedel, et al. p.133, 2016).

Conclusively, the application has been a contributor to a rapidly-developing trend in mobile technology – with the geosocial interface accounted for. Dually, it has proliferated to become a viable case study for critics interested in queer digital relationality, and as such has attained such popular status that it has even been of benefit to research in sexual health.

At the Rainbow’s End Sits… Capital 

Knowing of the application’s vast expansion prompts a factual account of its political economy: who influences what; to whom does the app owe credit for different facets of its functionality.

In an interview Joel Simkhai gave with an online technology publication, it was said that 75 per cent of revenue comes from the subscribers to the app, which has free and paid plans.

The free plan comes with the compromise of sponsored ads; the unpaid version, Grindr Xtra, is ad-free, with a broader range to its interface and added features. The remaining 25 per cent comes from advertising, which was said to be targeting local business effectively (Simkhai, 2013).

From this we can gather that the users themselves are the primary source of the company’s revenue, with advertising relative to their location comprising a significant remainder.

Grindr is currently supported by Gay Ad Network, a mobile ad campaign provider. Gay Ad Network distribute advertisements that target specific devices; locations; user information and web information. Gay Ad Network is responsible for the ads that users will see in various key points around the screen. In conjunction, Grindr offer their own in-house advertising services called Grindr Ads.

Simkhai claims that their integrated advertising methods have been beneficial to local businesses (2013). Contrarily, w ecould argue the ways in which the ads target and manipulate the app’s navigability reflects a capitalist rendering of the user. Their treatment then likens them to a conduit for financial prosperity between Grindr and their partnered bodies.

Grindr is a competitor in a mobile sphere of social media technologies – as Figure 1.0 indicates – within the subset of dating services. Its advertising revenue sustains its place as a key player amidst their competitors, but arguably compromises the user in the process.

 

Figure 1.0

Sebastian Sevignani writes that the relevant acquisition of user data heralds an emerging class of asset management (p.47, 2016). Our steady progression towards an informational capitalist society oversees extensive propositions for the user as an alienated commodity (p.47, 2016).

While it is included in Grindr’s privacy policy (2018) that any provided information may be used for advertising purposes, the claims Sevagnani makes persist in raising issues with the platform’s ethics.

Adding nuance to this is their use of Amazon Web Services for mapping and locative capability. According to academic Joseph Schmidt, “Grindr relies heavily on Amazon Web Services. Particularly Amazon EC2 virtual servers due to scalability, control of geographical location and high redundancy” (2017).

Amazon have been central to numerous debates over the ethics of their acquisition and usage of information. Furthermore, their scale as a company demonstrates an agenda to monopolise en masse (Mitchell, 2018), which implicates the user as a subordinate when referring back to Sevagnani’s critiques of informational capitalism (p.47, 2016).

In 2013, Amazon began experimenting with a form of machine labour that can, at best, be graciously referred to as contentious. They employed the use of drones to automate their delivery services, which raised serious concerns for the privacy of the US citizens, and ethical practice within the job sector being automated (Congressional Documents and Publications, 2013).

Drones have been contemporarily incorporated in the handling of offshore conflict, in the US occupation of Middle Eastern regions. These weapons of war represent the cross-section of an economy that poses a complex implication for its knowing participants.

The choice of a large corporation like Amazon to turn to military robotics deserves interrogation. Not least because their use in any context is entangled with the politics of warfare.

Hito Steyerl speaks on the management of the vertical gaze: the act of positioning oneself in the robotically aerial.

Her theories encompass an intricate linkage between geography and ideology; machine and flesh. Ultimately, they expose the aerial craft to be uniquely problematised under late capitalism. As flying war machines and delivery bots become dually-purposive, they represent an intersection of militant violence and civilian life (Steyerl, 2011).

The ultimate question here: how does a corporation of mass scale like Grindr navigate the structures of its political climate. Should we hold them accountable for their business partnerships, and does their place within the circulation of corporate capital implicate them in a larger scheme of international relations; ones that are bloody with the ongoing ventures of Western imperialism.

Concluding Notes

The net-workability of platforms like Grindr are often superficially engaged with. Their incorporation in to the day-to-day lives of many does not typically accompany a critical reading of its political economics; its ties to ideology; or the place it holds on a timeline of immense socio-technological development.

A closer look procures its scale, and the ways in which it configures with the landscape of technology that is characterising our current moment.

Reference List

Brown, A. (December 18, 2016). Algorithmic Control and the Revolution of Desire. ROAR Magazine. Accessed: https://roarmag.org/?s=grindr

Congressional Documents and Publications (December 2, 2013) PRIVACY: Udall: Amazon’s Drone Delivery Initiative Underscores Urgent Need to Update Privacy Safeguards. Congressional Documents and Pulbications; Washington. Accessed: https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/docview/1464069181/abstract/BDE7988E276B4C90PQ/1?accountid=14757

Gallo, R. (November 14, 2016). Designer Sex. E-Flux Journal: Superhumanity. Accessed: https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/superhumanity/68695/designer-sex/

Goedel, W. et al. (2016). HIV Risk Behaviors, Perceptions, and Testing and Preexposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) Awareness/Use in Grindr-Using Men Who Have Sex With Men in Atlanta, Georgia. Journal of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care. 27(2). (p.133). ISSN: 1055-3290

Grindr, LLC. (2018). ‘About’ [Webpage informational blogpost]. Accessed: https://www.grindr.com/about/

Grindr, LLC. (2018). ‘What is Grindr Xtra?’ [Webpage informational blogpost]. Accessed: https://help.grindr.com/hc/en-us/articles/115008879108-What-is-Grindr-XTRA-

Grindr, LLC. (2018). ‘Grindr Ads | Home’ [Website Home Page]. Accessed: https://www.grindrads.com/index.html

Hall, M. (July 13, 2013) Up Close and Personal: Q&A With Grindr Founder Joel Simkhai. PCMag. Accessed: https://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2421919,00.asp

Li Chisheng (2011) A Match is Never Far Away. Privacy Journal. 37(4). (p.1). ISSN: 01457659

Marshall, D. (2015) BEATING TIME AND SPACE. Journal of Theoretical Humanities. 2010.1080/0969725X.2015.1017374(1). p.229-233. DOI:

Sanders, T.C. (2008) M4M Chatrooms: Individual Socialisation and Sexual Autonomy. Culture, Health and Sexuality. 10(3). p.263-264. ISBN: 0494118865, 9780494118863

Schmidt, J. (May 14, 2017). What Technology Does Grindr Use For Location Detection? Quora. Accessed: https://www.quora.com/What-technology-does-grindr-use-for-location-detection

Sevignani, S. (2017)  Privacy and Capitalism in the Age of Social Media. ISBN: 9781317380399

Steyerl, H. (April, 2011). In Free Fall: a Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective. E-Flux Journal #24. Accessed: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/24/67860/in-free-fall-a-thought-experiment-on-vertical-perspective/

Veel, Kristin & Thylstrup, Nanna Bonde (2018) Geolocating the stranger: the mapping of uncertainty as a configuration of matching and warranting techniques in dating apps. Journal of Aesthetics and Culture. 10(3). (p.2-5). DOI: 10.1080/20004214.2017.1422924

 

Thomas Husband
About Thomas Husband 2 Articles
Undergrad at USYD doing Media and Communications, with a major in Digital Cultures. Arts and culture editor at FBI Radio. Professional no-one.

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