The Grindr Obsession

One man's journey into gay sex apps. By Duncan Busser

On an average night at any one of Philly’s gay bars, just as many guys have their noses buried in their phones as they do their beers. And even though we have all been using the Internet to make new friends since way back in the 20th century – whether it’s chatting on IRC (remember that?) or phone apps like Grindr have really changed the way gay men are meeting up and, in many cases, hooking up.

Sure, our addictions to MySpace, then Facebook, got us networking, and our dating sites got us a bit more, but when computers became pocket-sized (and some can even make phone calls!), the Web got way smaller. And with this shrinkage comes simpler interfaces. Grindr specifically gives us a stripped-down version of networking combined with a GPS-style locater that makes it so we can find out just how close the next gay guy is, along with most basic of information – like size. Sometimes that’s all you want.

Grindr is by far the most widely-used GPS-based gay hookup, er, “dating” app around thanks, in part, to its availablity on iPhone, iPad and Blackberry. In fact, it won the iDate Award for Best Mobile Dating Site last month, beating out other nominees – most of which were not gay-specific. But as I ventured into this world of gay sex apps, I found there’s a lot more out there where Grindr comes from. Lots more. And there are some I like a lot better.

According to our own unscientific study (thank you, Survey Monkey) of current GPhilly readers and friends through social networking sites, we found the app Scruff to be a strong up-and-comer, while apps like Growlr and Jack’d (even if we love the name) may have many more features, but often get bogged down easily and have little or no following whatsoever. Manhunt even recently launched an app that is far less useful than its years-old mobile site.

Me, I have used Grindr for several months, but I had never used it to meet a stranger. I use it to see how many of my friends use it. I use it to see how many feet away the closest gay is – possibly even in my own apartment building! I use it to look at 1/2” x 1/2” pictures of gays so I can judge them for not showing their faces online or having a face that shouldn’t be shown anywhere. I used it to find out if there are other gays at the gay bar I’m in.

Some of my friends have also said the same, and that they also use apps like Grindr as less of a hook-up device and more of a meet-up alternative not unlike FourSquare. Some of my smartphone-enabled friends have started checking in on FourSquare so we could know where to meet up, but we also noticed just how many people at bars are glued to their phones now. Why does anyone bother going out to a bar anymore? It can’t just be for the vodka special. What are they looking for exactly?

A Grindr user called RedMoonRiver told me recently that seeing people with their noses in their phones frustrates him. “I’ve seen too many guys sitting on Grindr and Scruff in gay bars. I think a lot of us have insecurity issues. But it’s definitely not the most inviting when you’re live and in person,” he explained. So he deleted the app from his Blackberry.

Another user – this one called Jim – says he uses Scruff the most. “The ability to search for other guys in the same location, as well as look at international guys, makes the app my current favorite,” he said. Personally, I also like Scruff better. In fact, that’s how my partner and I met Jim and his partner. The four of us were at the same party, all on Scruff, laughing at how there were all these people at this party on Scruff. Maybe laughing at the app and its users is more fun that using it for its intended purposes, at least for me and my friends.

I should add that most of the hookup apps are free, paid for by ad revenue. Scruff has three volunteer employees. Grindr has several paid staff and has – by far – the most users with more than 1.5 million members worldwide, many of whom use the $2.99 per month subscription-based version with a few additional features.

There’s even news for straights who may feel like they’ve been missing the boat when it comes to “dating” apps. Following the receipt of the iDate award, founder and president Joel Simkhai announced that his company, Nearby Buddy Finder LLC, is using the established and successful model to launch a site geared toward straight women in coming months. The straight version will include more information about members (like occupation) and it’ll be more searchable and less stripped-down, meeting the demands set by straight women – and not us gay guys.

Duncan Busser is a bon vivant living in Philadelphia who spends his days looking for a “real job.” He lives in the Logan Square section of the city helping his partner raise his two-year-old son.