Can Grindr go straight?

 

Most social networking sites connect people in the virtual world but Grindr helps gay people meet for real. And now its founder is launching an app for the straight community too

ACCORDING TO Joel Simkhai, he has the best job in the world. Sitting in the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin sipping water, he’s talking about his mission “to connect us all”. In the past two-and-a-half years, his app has accumulated three million members globally, almost exclusively through word of mouth. It helps of course when Stephen Fry mentions you on Top Gearand when stories circulate about George Michael logging on in Australia.

Simkhai’s app is Grindr, a geo-social network that connects gay men. And now, Simkhai is eyeing up the straight world.

Grindr is uncomplicated. Create a profile, upload a photo and see gay men in your area who have done the same. The first profiles to appear on your phone’s screen when you log on are those nearest to you. Then you can send a free message to a person’s profile, exchange more photos and meet up.

Who made Grindr possible? “Steve Jobs,” Simkhai replies. The 35-year-old New Yorker is referring to the second-generation iPhone that contained the technology to allow geolocation-based social networks to happen.

Aside from the technology, the genesis of Grindr was born out of Simkhai’s personal irritations. “Almost every day I’d get frustrated: ‘who’s that guy’, or a smile and nothing happens, or you go on an online dating site and you find people but they’re miles or kilometres away.”

Gay men tend to be particularly early adopters of social media. In 1999, five years before Facebook’s launch was a glint in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, Gaydar.com was operating as a sub-social network. It allowed users to have unique individual profiles, and connect with each other for dates, conversation, friendship and sex.

The website now has six million members. The internet enabled gay people to bypass the previously clunky attempts at connecting through indicators of sexual identity – everything from double takes to the hanky code – and cut straight to the basics.

If Gaydar.com was the gay Facebook, then Grindr is the gay Foursquare. Except you’re not checking into places, you’re checking into people. Like most of the best ideas, Grindr is annoyingly simple. For the gay community, it was staring everyone in the face for so long.

How do you find out who is gay near you? Aside from going to a gay bar, it’s hard to identify gay people in your sphere. Grindr creates an X-ray specs effect, revealing people’s sexuality in the privacy of one’s phone and also in the public nature of an open network. And it’s free.

And because the interest gay men have in meeting other gay men accelerates their use of social media, the technological trends they set tend to be followed by the heterosexual mainstream. That is where Simkhai’s new project comes into play. He hopes to repeat the success of Grindr in the straight world with a new app called Blendr, whose logo is on his sweatshirt.

Much like Toby Cecchini doing a double take in New York bars in the early 1990s when people were suddenly ordering the Cosmopolitan cocktail he popularised, Simkhai’s moment happened when he travelled from LA to London and noticed a guy in a café using Grindr.

He now commands a global team of 90 people. Not bad for a man who had just $5,000 to invest in Grindr at the outset. In The George – the fading bastion of the gay social scene in Dublin – last Thursday night, they were having a Grindr party. Leaflets declaring “More features, more guys”, advertised Grindr Xtra, the premium monthly subscription service that allows notifications, no ads, a greater favourites-saving capacity and multiple photo sending.

On stage, backing dancers wore customised shirts bearing the distinctive Grindr logo and danced alongside an energetic drag queen. The bar staff also had the Grindr logo on their T-shirts. The branding and vernacular of the app have become very much embedded in gay-scene culture.

“It’s creating real life, creating real experience,” Simkhai says. And he’s right. Grindr breeds real-life experiences. “I think what we’re setting out to do is two things,” Simkhai says. “One is making it easier to meet the average gay guy or bisexual guy. And related to that is the sense of community and making people feel a lot more connected. That’s the power of the smartphone; you’re never quite alone. Especially for someone who’s just coming out, or someone in a country where there aren’t many other gay people, or someone in a remote area – it can be very lonely and isolating. It’s great to see that Grindr can help them realise that they’re not alone.”

Considering we’re in the eye of a social media storm, it’s very difficult to gain a sense of perspective on how social networking is really impacting on our lives and identities. One growing complaint is the connection paradox, in that creating more connections with people, gaining more friends and followers, we are in fact lessening the strength of those connections. Traditional small, close-knit groups of the so-called “urban family” or networks of friends and acquaintances, are expanding into a sprawling network of tenuous relationships not necessarily reinforced by real-life experiences or interaction.

Simkhai is part of that progression but he doesn’t see it as a negative. “Life is a game of numbers, it’s about chance,” he says. “Finding that gem in your life, someone who’s special to you – a friend, a partner, a business partner – that happens one in a 100, one in a 1,000; a small percentage of the people that you meet become a strong connection.

“From my perspective it’s a game of numbers and you have to interact and meet people to see if you want to continue where there’s value. It’s the only way to do it.” Simkhai should know, he met his partner on Grindr in April. Oddly, the power of Grindr is in not using it. Whereas the triumphs of other freakishly successful apps and services such as Facebook, Angry Birds, Farmville or Twitter depend on individuals spending silly amounts of time on them, Grindr aims for the user to spend as little time as possible on it.

That idea goes against conventional wisdom when it comes to making money from such services but Grindr is about getting off Grindr. You open the app, and then hopefully end up having a real-life interaction because of it as soon as possible. It is a facilitator for real life, not a virtual setting to live in.

Grindr looks set to continue to grow, just as Gaydar.com has rarely wavered in popularity. But Blendr’s potential is a little mistier. Blendr faces one main obstacle. When you take out the common denominator of gay or bisexual, aren’t you just another dating site?

Blendr replaces sexuality as a commonality with categories of “interests” concerning everything from sport to religion. But there are also complexities in creating a safe environment in which heterosexual people can interact. The power dynamic changes, and the level playing field and trust scenario acted out between two men become distorted. It’s also one of the reasons why a lesbian version of Grindr hasn’t really taken off. Some apps have sprung up – most notably Qrushr – but many have had problems with men posing as women.

“Blendr is quite a big vision,” Simkhai admits. “From Blendr I think . . .” he pauses and looks around the packed room. “I sit in this restaurant and I look at all these people and I wonder who they are and where they’re from and what they do. With Blendr the hope is that we’ll be able to connect us all.”

As for the millions of encounters Simkhai is responsible for so far? “I’m quite comfortable with that. As long as it’s lawful and safe, I think that’s great. Sometimes society looks down on meeting a lot of people. I think you should be meeting hundreds of people. What I’m really obsessed with is that there’s so much going around us even in just one block. And we know so little. That’s what we’re trying to solve here.”

Some people might not see their surroundings as something that needs to be “solved” but some people aren’t Simkhai.