Joel Simkhai, the founder of Grindr, is barely ten feet away from me. Or at least that’s what my Grindr app says. I’m at LA’s Pacific Design Center, home of Grindr’s global gay headquarters, standing in a courtyard that seems lifted straight from Spike Jonze’s Her: walls of pulsating LED light wash over me, glowing at a breathy interval suggesting sentience. But Simkhai, who peers out from my phone posing shirtless at a beach with a disembodied hand resting on his shoulder, isn’t responding to my repeated messages, and, honestly, I feel strange sending them to him. Grindr may bill itself as an app that “connects” gay people, like a gay LinkedIn, but using it to score a business interview seems entirely out of line, like asking for theater recommendations at an orgy. Which is part of the problem the landmark app is facing as it desperately searches for its second act.
It’s been nearly a decade now since Simkhai, who’d recently moved to Los Angeles from New York City, first secured a $2,000 investment and released Grindr as an app with help from a Swedish programmer he’d met online. His initial goal, he says, was just to meet other gay people in his new neighborhood. The app, however, has done a lot more than that, revolutionizing gay dating culture in general and inspiring a series of breathtakingly profitable copycat dating apps—both straight and gay and in between—that together earn over $2 billion in revenue a year.
If Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feed our bottomless hunger for affirmation, Grindr’s purpose is less defined. Ostensibly, the app was designed for making connections, but it’s really a source of endless titillation, a never-ending scroll of sexual possibilities. It’s also where gay men go to have illuminating conversations like “cut or uncut,” “how big r u,” and “u up” (never with question marks, which imply effort).
Simkhai plays coy when the topic turns to Grindr’s reputation. Yes, he says in interviews, the app is used for hookups, but he’s also quick to point out that some gay men meet their life partners from one-night stands. In its marketing language, Grindr bills itself as an app whose goal is just as much to connect gay people across the world and provide a lifeline to those living in places where being gay is dangerous, as it is to facilitate furtive, often drunken encounters.
But does Grindr’s self-image as a grown-up dating app reflect how its users perceive it? It’s weird to think of Grindr as a place for genuine connection because it is—by design—as superficial as dating apps come. In many ways, the app seems synonymous with its birthplace, West Hollywood, a gayborhood where Adonis Aussiebum models stare glassy eyed from billboards and gay bars play Britney Spears remixes ad nauseam. It is, to put it lightly, a visually discriminating zip code—a carb-averse, C4-swigging fitness hub where bodies are sculpted for studio film work or to monetize Instagram accounts. Nearly textless profiles make perfect sense in a place where up-and-down glances feel like a prerequisite for casual chats IRL.
Like Airbnb, which now creates city guides for wanderlusting Millennials, and Snapchat, whose camera-embedded shades allow you to stream your entire life, Grindr wants to shed its party-boy image and become a respectable lifestyle brand.
This year, the company sold a majority stake to Beijing Kunlun Tech Company, a Chinese gaming company owned by the billionaire tech mogul Zhou Yahui. Landis Smithers, Grindr’s creative director, insisted that the infusion of foreign cash hadn’t changed Grindr’s office culture, but that it remains a point of interest among outsiders. “We were purchased by a company that comes from China; we weren’t purchased by the Chinese government,” he said.
Since the buyout, the company has launched a fashion line that benefits LGBT athletes—complete with camo swim trunks and tank tops adorned with Greek god iconography—and began the Grindr4Equality campaign, an initiative to advance gay rights worldwide. This year, on Sunset Boulevard, drivers were treated to a billboard advertising the company’s efforts to help gay Syrian refugees find safe houses. “That’s our kind of hookup,” read the copy.
Grindr’s reach—and therefore, influence—is undeniable. Seventy percent of Grindr’s users are overseas, and half of those are located in countries where it’s illegal to be gay, according to Smithers. “We are a place for them to connect, whether they’d like to use their real pictures and names or not,” he said. Grindr’s ubiquity also helps the company provide social services “as discreetly as possible,” Smithers says.
Smithers said it’s been fascinating being a “digital voyeur” into the ways different gay cultures operate around the world, and he’s noticed an evolution in the way gay men use the app in more tolerant countries. “The first adopters were knees to neck—you know—very visual, like “Look at my abs. Look at my pecs,’” he said. “What I love is that the latest generation treats it much more like Facebook, using full faces, full names, and links to Instagram profiles. The shame has evaporated, and the interactions are more genuine.”
But as it expands, what’s arguably most important is ensuring that these users’ privacy is protected. This year, Nguyen Phong Hoang, a computer-security researcher in Kyoto, Japan, wrote a research paper about how stalkers can pinpoint the location of anyone who uses Grindr. The process involves spoofing the GPS of two accounts so that they seem closer to the user, then using trilateration to zero in on the victim’s location. In response, Grindr now allows anyone to turn off the app’s distance-measuring feature and disables it by default in countries known to have “a history of violence against the gay community,” including Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.
As the largest of all gay dating apps, Grindr has also attracted more than its share of unsavory characters. In October of this year, a man was strangled, dismembered and eaten with chopsticks by a guy he met on Grindr. Serial killer Stephen Port, who killed four men, used the app to meet his victims.
In the wake of these incidents, some are calling for Grindr take more concrete steps to ensure that something like this never happens again. Given the fact that the app allows killers to literally lure victims to their doors, some question why it doesn’t have features that allow users to report not only profiles they find offensive but also ones they consider dangerous. To the consternation of watchdogs, Grindr has also been loathe to respond to media inquiries about these issues.
Despite the potential for harassment, Grindr, like other tech companies, is wary of becoming a Big Brother to its users and refuses to moderate exchanges or get involved in “media clapback,” as Smithers calls it. “This is an open platform, and there are a lot of issues that we don’t create or facilitate but sometimes get flack for,” he said.
70% of Grindr’s users now live overseas, half of them in nations where it’s still illegal to be gay.
That said, Grindr has a way of bringing to the surface the gay community’s problems, including femme phobia, ageism, and racism, as well as the troublingly persistent appeal of chemsex. Henry Scott, an editor of the hyperlocal news blog Wehoville, said it was easy to find multiple profiles in his neighborhood that read “$4Tina” or used smoke-cloud or party-hat emojis to advertise the selling of meth, but it wasn’t until after he published an article this year on the subject that Grindr began banning drug-related lingo from the platform.
Scott believes Grindr’s omnipresence makes the app especially dangerous for those in recovery. “People say, oh, they’ll just go to Craigslist, but it’s a lot easier to ignore Craigslist than to ignore Grindr,” he said.
When I asked Smithers why it took the app seven years to ban euphemisms for meth, he told me that Grindr has been fighting against solicitation since its inception, and that banning drug-specific slang was like playing a game of whack-a-mole. “The community is very inventive and will constantly find new buzzwords, new names, new ways of spelling things,” he said. He also pointed out that banning a word like “Tina” from the platform could force trans users to find a new dating app.
He hinted that Grindr was planning a few initiatives in the coming years to address gay issues and make the app more inclusive to people who don’t fit into a narrow conception of gayness, including live-streamed talks on body shaming, masc/fem issues, and HIV-status disclosure.
This is good, because even if you put aside the nefarious aspects of Grindr, it’s still arguably a hard place to feel like a whole human. “The world’s scariest gay bar,” as Choire Sicha once called it, even intimidates Simkhai, who told the New York Times that he regularly feels like he’s hitting up guys on the app who are out of his league. (Despite the rejection, he says he checks the app “at least once every 20 minutes.”) This body dysmorphia seems to be part and parcel of the Grindr experience: even super-attractive men I know feel inadequate on it.
Branding experts are divided on whether or not Grindr can become something more than a hookup app that makes its users feel bad about themselves. “I think ‘Grindr’ is a dirty word,” Petur Workman, a branding expert at the ad agency Broadstreet, told me. “I’m secure with it, but other people are not—they’re embarrassed that they use it.”
Workman, for one, thinks Grindr’s problems are significant enough to warrant a complete rebrand. For him, the unsafe sex that happens on the app has tarnished its image in the eyes of users and, therefore, brands. “It’s literally the name and the platform that are seen as dirty. Grindr does what they can to promote safe sex, but a lot of people are seroconverting on it because of anonymous encounters,” he said.
He told me that hip advertisers—as well as big mainstream brands like Procter & Gamble—probably wouldn’t take a chance on Grindr in the near future. In some ways, there are parallels between the situation Grindr has found itself in and how brands viewed sites like gay.com and Planet Out. In the late nineties and early 2000s, gay.com had the largest volume of gay consumers in a single space, but brands like GM and Chrysler didn’t want to advertise alongside “daddy” forums.
“It’s fifteen years later, and we still see advertisers hesitant to have their brands associated with gay media that brings people together for chatting, community building, or hooking up,” Mark Elderkin, the founder of both sites, told me. “The culture’s changed, but advertisers are still hesitant to have their brands in places that aren’t G or PG rated.”
Grindr, like any sex-facilitating media product, presents an existential quandary to potential advertisers, according to John T. Nash, an advertising guru who created the first car ads aimed at LGBT audiences. “To me, it’s a collision between perfect data and sensibility,” he said. “Grindr can probably show you statistics that are off the wall, but then you take a step back and think, ‘Well, what are users doing there?’ Do they expect to see an ad for a $32,000 car or an insurance policy for a house that’s north of a million bucks?”
Smithers, as creative director, is trying to make Grindr feel a bit more like home to gay people who have previously shunned it, but he’s also defiant about keeping Grindr’s core functions intact.
“If you just want to use Grindr to hook up with someone and have something that’s really transactional, that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “We’re simply saying, yes, that’s awesome—here are five other ways that you can connect. You can talk about a different topic and find out if there are different types of people that you want to meet or use it to find a friend.”
“But,” he added, “we’re not going to apologize for an app that allows you to be both sexual and intellectual.”