Grindr’s Founder on Politics, Safe Sex & Allowing Users to Specify a Type
Whatever your personal feelings about it, there is no denying Grindr's influence on the gay community. Ever since the app made its debut nearly four years ago it has tremendously impacted how gay men interact with each other. It's made it easier than ever for guys to find whatever it is they are looking for, whether it be friends, dates, a quick chat or (most likely) a quickie.
Grindr's signature yellow grid that displays the nearest men who are on the prowl has made it, as it states on Grindr's website, "the world's biggest mobile network of guys." Grindr uses your smart phone's location-based service to show you the guys closest to you who are also on the app.
According to the company, 4.5 million men in 192 countries have downloaded the app, with nearly 1 million guys signed on at any given time. In a recent interview, Grindr's founder and chief executive officer Joel Simkhai told EDGE that he is rebuilding the app to accommodate such phenomenal growth and to ensure speed, stability and responsiveness. He promised that the new, improved Grindr would not only be faster but "a lot more fun."
The look and the way it is used will also change, he added. "We are adding communities and filters," Simkhai said. "Now, you can see everyone around you and you can only filter based on age. With new Grindr, you will be allowed to filter users based on ethnicity, body type, height, weight, relationship status and lots of other things."
Allowing Users to Specify the Type of Man
Simkhai said users will be able to search for guys based on one of 12 "communities," including HIV status.
"There are lots of different types of gay men," he said. "There are bears, there are daddies, there are twinks. There are all these sub-communities within our gay community. So we're going to allow you to select yourself of one of 12 communities, including HIV positive," he continued. "The idea is if you're looking to meet someone who is HIV positive, you can now do that and search for that person. We are very excited for that and it's going to make a big, big difference."
Grindr certainly has its critics. Simkhai expects it to be no different when he rolls out the new version. "We are filtering out the community. We are segmenting half the community, even more," he gleefully admitted. "There's pros and cons to it, unfortunately," he said. "It's what our users want."
He said he's only responding to users, who want to meet specific types of guys. "That's real life," he said. "There are specific types of bars. There's Latin night, bear night, Asian night, bars that are skewed older, bars that are skewed hipster, bars that are skewed twink. Do I like it? I don't know how I feel about it but it's natural and it's what our users want."
"I very much like the idea that Grindr just shows you everyone around you," he said. "But what we found is that people block a lot. Blocking is one of the most popular features on Grindr. They're just not interested in meeting them so it's telling me that they are being selective and choosing. So when the criticism comes that I'm segmenting the community, I'll probably have to agree with it."
Nor is Simkhai worried that the new features will close guys off from meeting new people or going outside of their comfort zone: "You are lowering your chances of randomly meeting someone. I can't control that though. I just know what my users want and its my job to give that to them," he said.
Some take particular issue with the way many users flat out declare that they're "Not into Asians," or "Sorry. No blacks. Just a preference."
Canada's Globe and Mail, in an article entitled "No Asian. No Indian:' Picky Dater or Racist Dater?," stated the objection this way: "In an endless parade of shirtless beefcakes, many state racial biases as openly as other turnoffs, like flab."
In an op-ed piece published in Out magazine, Alexander Chee said that men who specifically write that they are not interested in a specific race are not stating a preference but "using the disguise of a semi-socially acceptable way to say you're a racist and looking to hook up with other racists."
The issue has even inspired a website, "Douchebags of Grindr," that allows users to upload screen caps of other users they find offensive. One of the most recent photos shows a screen cap of a 24-year-old man named "LT" whose profile says, "Bored, so looking to chat. Not interested in black guys."
Looking Back at the Beginning
Simkhai never dreamed how much Grindr would impact on the gay world when he launched it back in March 2009. He claims he created it because he thought, "I want to meet other guys."
"I just thought wouldn't it be cool if I could see guys nearby based on location and be able to chat with them," he related. "Even to this day, I think about how we have tens of thousands of Japanese users on Grindr. I have no concept of what being gay in Japan is all about."
Simkhai was born in Israel's largest city, Tel Aviv. He moved to New York City with his family when he was three. He always struggled with meeting guys and the different dating sites he used didn't seem to work for him.
What he really wanted to know was who the other gay guys near him were at any given time. At first he considered a mash-up of Craiglist and Google Maps. Things only clicked when Apple launched its second-generation cell phone, the iPhone 3.
"I immediately knew that this is what I need because it had the technology: it had the GPS, it had the App Store, it had the ability to distribute apps a lot easier," he said. Simkhai found a developer in Denmark and got a friend, Scott Lewallen, to help with the design. After six months of work, the three just "put it out there" with no business plan.
"We only had $5,000 in investments and really no concept of what we were doing," Simkhai recalled. "We just kind of put it out there - we thought it would be neat."
Very quickly, Grindr grew from just another of the tens of thousands of offerings in Apples' Apps Store to one of the leading dating tools for gay men. Grindr first spread through word of mouth and some press but one of the most pivotal moments was when it was mentioned on "Top Gear," a British television series about cars.
Grindr's reach is truly international. London is the app's most popular city. Users range from Brazil to Russia and even parts of the Middle East.
Once Grindr reached a significant amount of users, the app got political and launched "Grindr for Equality," a campaign that delivers geo-targeted messages about gay rights issues to users, EDGE reported.
Simkhai gives the example of the New York State Senate debating same-sex marriage last June. Five GOP senators remained on the fence. "We said to ourselves, 'There are five senators on the fence. Why don't we target our users in the senatorial districts and let them know their senator is on the fence and also encourage them to call their senator to vote yes?'
"Even if they knew [who their senator is], they'd have to go and find the phone numbers. So we made it very, very easy. Just press one button, the 'more' button," Simkhai said of the pop up notification that appears when a user logs into Grindr. "The response from that was tremendous."
He pointed to "Grindr for Equality," launched earlier this year, which, he said, "informs our users of issues related to them on a local, national and sometimes international levels. We bring the attention to these issues and give them an easy call to action. Sign this online petition. It takes two seconds. Or maybe make a small donation or go to this rally or make this phone call.
"The idea is we ask for you to do something that's fairly simple to you and not that complicated. That's something that really drives what we do on 'Grindr for Equality.' We've done hundreds of different things around the world over the years and hopefully we're making a difference."
Simkhai added while it's hard to track how successful the campaign has been, his team "tracks the taps and the clicks but it's been good."
The Personal Is the Political
"I don't think it's going political," Simkhai said about "Grindr for Equality." I think it's caring about my equality and that transfers to politics, unfortunately. I don't really have a passion for politics. The fire I have is that we are not equal, we can't get married wherever we want.
"There are countries in this world where we can get killed. I am a gay man. I am a person. I am a businessman. I just want to live my life. I am not a second-class citizen under any way shape or form, but according to the laws I am. I don't get the same benefits as other people. I can even get fired in some states. So there is the fire right there.
"I'm not trying to help others, by the way, I'm still doing this for myself. I want to get married one day and have kids and if they come out or if I meet kids that are struggling to come out then I in that way it's 'selfless.'"
Although he admitted to "being a little facetious with how 'selfish' I am," Simkhai conceded, he still maintained that the campaign shows how such an aggregated number of gay men can be utilized to further the larger gay rights movement.
Safer Sex. Or Not
While "Grindr for Equality" tries to progress the LGBT community's rights, some may wonder why the creators of the dating app didn't strive for a similar campaign based around HIV awareness or safe sex. Simkhai told EDGE that, in the past, Grindr has worked with HIV prevention organizations in order to get users to attend awareness events.
"We are not experts on HIV prevention or politics so we try to partner with other organizations that are," he said. "That's not our core competency so we work with diff organizations to leverage them."
Some, however, have criticized Grindr for perpetuating an instant hookup culture and unsafe sex, which can lead to STDs and HIV. "We made it a lot easier for you to meet someone," Simkhai answered. "I'm proud of that and I think it's a fantastic thing. You can now go anywhere in the world and meet a gay man in minutes and it's a very fast and convenient way to do that."
He readily admitted that the possibility of a sexual encounter is certainly part of Grindr's appeal for many users. "That's what happens when two gay men who are attracted to each other meet," he said. "Guess what? They have sex. Surprise, surprise! And I think that's fantastic. I think it's fantastic people are meeting."
As for guys not using protection during their encounters, Simkhai doesn't think that's so fantastic. He said he has been trying to find ways to curb men from having unsafe sex. The app has a health section that stresses the importance of using condoms and getting tested for STDs and HIV.
"One of the things we don't allow is users to say is 'Hey, I'm interested in having unsafe sex' in profiles. We censor that with teams who monitor for users who are interested in engaging in unsafe sex," he said. "Even if they say I'm HIV positive and I want to have sex with someone else who is HIV positive we just don't allow that. We allow you to say you are HIV positive, but we don't allow u to say u want to have unsafe sex for any reason."
This story is part of our special report titled "HomoTech." Want to read more? Here's the full list.