“One of my frustrations throughout life — and I think this is a frustration of every gay man — is to figure out who else is in the same boat,” Simkhai tells me over the phone from Los Angeles. “More often than not, it’s not obvious. If you sit in a room and you lock eyes with someone — anywhere, at a party for your aunt or at the gym — you see a guy, you lock eyes, but you still don’t know.”
When the second generation iPhones came out, Simkhai immediately recognized their GPS capabilities as a way to enhance the way location could define an online cruising experience. What he accidentally did in the process was to liberate Internet cruising from the desktop. This sounds simple, but it actually amounts to a significant reversal in gay socializing: the very force that was decimating living, breathing gay culture was now offering a reason to once again leave the house and create it.
“You can go down to a Chris Harris party in Boston and turn Grindr on, and it actually works better. You have 30 guys within 300 feet of you. The incentive is to be mobile, to get out and about. It’s not tying you down anywhere.” Simkhai is running with the notion that location matters, and there have already been more than 150 branded Grindr parties around the country — pretty much designed to mimic the strange sight I saw in P-town.
Not everyone is sold. One South End doctor told me that, upon first signing in to Grindr, he “winced” to learn the proclivities of his many gaybors; a local photographer confided he deleted the program because he’d grown tired of blocking people who “grossed [him] out.” Plus, stubborn stigmas still linger over mobile social-networking apps — so much so that they’re even passive-aggressively wielded by Simkhai’s competitors. “Let’s face it,” said West Fourth co-founder Eric Silverberg in a press statement earlier this spring, “every other gay social site, mobile or not, is trashy.” He described his app as “the first site that people would be proud to admit they’d met their boyfriend on.” And if this whole scene seems a bit dude-heavy, it is; newly launched apps like Qrushr Girls are trying to overcome Rachel Maddow’s as the top lesbian app, but it’s slow going. (Whether men are more naturally driven by hard-ons or drawn to technology is another topic for another time.)
For his part, Simkhai doesn’t seem too interested in how people are using his app — just that they’re using it.
“I view ourselves as a technology company, a provider of software,” he says. “From my perspective, that’s really all we do. This is about seeing who is around you and communicating with them.” While he clearly has a grasp of the power and reach of his technology, Simkhai doesn’t see his endeavor as activist, nor is he taking credit for how his app is changing some fundamental challenges of gayness.
After all, whether people are using Grindr as nothing more than a super-slutty Batphone or as a legitimate way to find common ground on unfamiliar turf, there’s something empowering about knowing that you’re not all by yourself out there. If the short-term benefit of applications like Grindr is that the Kevin James look-alike three lanes down at the bowling alley shows up as an alert in your pocket, the long-term effect is that more and more of us can find strength in numbers (and luck in proximity).