Inside Grindr's Quest to Become the First Global Gay Lifestyle Brand
Though it's best known as a hookup app, Grindr is branching out by forming social justice initiatives and creating tailored user experiences. But while the company's expansion is exciting, privacy concerns loom large, and many wonder how a service that...
Dec 28 2016, 6:25pm
Illustration by Eleanor Doughty
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To most gay men, Grindr is known as the world's premiere dick pic delivery service. But lately, the company's executives, programmers, and PR soldiers have been hard at work to shift the app's image from "hookup helper" to "lifestyle brand." When I visited the startup's new Los Angeles headquarters, an 18,000-square-foot workspace located in the Pacific Design Center Red Building, change was all anyone could talk about. The panoramic view of Los Angeles provided by floor-to-ceiling windows was inescapable. A diverse and attractive staff buzzed throughout the workplace, coding at large computers or lounging on modernist furniture. Morale was high, and conversations hummed with possibility. One thing was certain: This is far more than just the dick pic Death Star. This is the nerve center of a global tech company, and thanks to a recent majority investment by a Chinese gaming company, Beijing Kunlun Tech, it's one that's poised for major expansion.
The investment, which was announced in January, put Grindr's valuation at $155 million. But though Beijing Kunlun has acquired 60 percent of the company, the investor allowed Grindr to keep its current operating team and structure. In short, Grindr has an influx of cash and a significant degree of autonomy to guide plans for global proliferation.
A motivating factor behind Beijing Kunlun's investment was likely Grindr's rapidly growing user base. A little over a year after CEO Joel Simkhai launched the app in 2009, Grindr had racked up more than one million users. The app now boasts more than seven million, with the highest concentration of members in the US. Users are also highly engaged: More than two million people use Grindr daily, and spend an average of 54 minutes on the app. Simply put: Grindr has the gay community by the balls. It wants to take this massive, highly attentive audience and, per press materials, "become the preeminent global gay lifestyle brand."
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The company has a variety of plans to achieve this. Some of the app's initial rebranding plays include Slumbr, a celebrity-studded Pride party hosted at The Standard hotel in New York this year; Grindr Varsity, a clothing line benefiting Athlete Ally, a nonprofit fighting homophobia in sports; and Grindr For Equality, a gay rights advocacy initiative. Leaders in the company also hope to expand the functions of the app in coming years, to transform Grindr into something closer to a "gay social network."
The company is also aware of its controversial status in the gay community. In today's LGBT media landscape, there is no shortage of pieces decrying the decline of the gay bar and Grindr's negative impact on queer culture. In an interview with Broadly, Gina Gatta, owner of the gay travel guide Damron, stated that from 2006 to 2016 the total number of American gay bars dropped from 1,605 to 1,022, signaling a 36 percent decrease in the past decade.
Simkhai doesn't believe it's fair to pin all this on Grindr. "If it was true that there were no more gay parties and dance clubs, then I would say that maybe Grindr's at fault," he told me in his glass-walled office. "But I think there's a shift...[Gay people are] getting more integrated in society."
Simkhai is also dismissive of critics who insist his app discourages users from engaging in public queer spaces like gay bars. "As we talk social networks—the Snapchats, the Facebooks, the Instagrams—they're not really bringing people together," he said. "We're one of the unique apps that actually brings you to meet someone."
Simkhai plans to enhance Grindr's ability to connect users with the outside world. "The next 'problem' I want to solve with Grindr is: 'What do I do tonight?' That's what we're optimizing for Grindr today. I want you to get out of your house and do things. That could be hooking up, or not," Simkhai continued. "Grindr becomes more holistic, if [in the future] we help unlock your world around you. No one's doing this [with a] specific focus on your needs as a gay man."
Grindr has the potential to utilize its geolocation feature and collected data to supply users with tailored, local experiences. In the future, the app might suggest you try a new gay bar, provide a discount at a local sex shop, or connect you with other users interested in a political rally—taking cues from services like Yelp, Foursquare, and Meetup. By expanding its function beyond simply facilitating sexual encounters, the app hopes to engage a new generation of 18-to-24-year-old Grindr users who—according to a study conducted by the company—prioritize "building community" over "hooking up" in their usage of the app.
For now, the function of the app remains the same. But Landis Smithers, Grindr's new vice president of marketing, hopes that the proposed "groundbreaking technology around on-demand actions" will emerge within the next few years. "In five years I want Grindr to be an immersive tool that can help people unlock things they didn't know they wanted," Smithers said. "We joke about [the film] Minority Report, and [the scene with Tom Cruise] walking into the Gap and having your T-shirts ready... I wouldn't mind walking into places and having Grindr unlock things for me."
Of course, your ability to find humor in this joke depends on whether you were titillated or alarmed by Minority Report's vision of the future of personal advertising. Regardless, collecting data on consumers is essential to Grindr's plans for "unlocking" their world. "We can use data to help us figure out [things like] 'How can I connect you with your immediate surroundings?'" Simkhai said. "We know where our users are. We know what they like."
I wouldn't mind walking into places and having Grindr unlock things for me.
Grindr's efforts to engage and shape queer culture are not limited to its North American audience. Simkhai is currently ramping up efforts with Grindr for Equality, an initiative promoting LGBT advocacy across the world. "It's illegal to be gay in over 70 countries in this world," Simkhai told me. "We're in a unique position where we can take technology and our mass audience and bring them together to advance gay rights."
Jack Harrison-Quintana is the director of Grindr for Equality and a veteran of social justice organizations like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Since joining the company in 2015, Harrison-Quintana has partnered with international LGBT advocacy groups and used Grindr's interface to reach queer populations driven underground by anti-LGBT governments. In a Skype conversation from Washington DC, Harrison-Quintana cited Grindr For Equality's successful collaborations with MOSAIC (Middle East and North Africa Organization for Services, Advocacy, Integration, and Capacity Building) as a template for future actions.
One way Grindr for Equality utilizes its capabilities is by partnering with local LGBT organizations who are prepared to receive LGBT refugees but don't know how to find them. "People are moving out of Syria in droves, and in most refugee systems these people get introduced into, no one is tracking if people are LGBT," Harrison-Quintana said. "As a result, they don't get access to what they need. If you're a trans woman leaving Syria and you need to get hormones in Lebanon—what do you do?" Grindr identifies where refugees are living and sends targeted in-app advertisements to Grindr users in these areas, telling them where they can access LGBT refugee services.
But despite security issues, Grindr's geolocation feature can also be leveraged for significant good. Grindr's location-specific, in-app advertisements have proven an effective way of promoting HIV prevention among American gay men. In 2015, Grindr for Equality paired with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to survey Grindr users' awareness of PrEP, an effective anti-HIV medication. After the survey revealed widespread ignorance when it came to PrEP, Grindr increased pro bono in-app messaging about the drug, where to find it, and how to get it covered without insurance.
Another recent independent study from researchers at UCLA determined that in-app advertisements were extremely effective means of distributing free at-home HIV self-test kits. After placing banner and full-screen notifications for free HIV home tests in Grindr, researchers found that "HIV self-testing promotion through apps has a high potential to reach untested high-risk populations," like African American and Latino communities in which HIV prevention is often stigmatized.
Harrison-Quintana said that Grindr is already looking at ways to replicate the methods of this and other similar studies in high-risk cities like Atlanta, Baltimore, and El Paso. Smithers asserted that Grindr has taken a cue from researchers and replicated the study with success: "We saw the UCLA study about giving out free HIV home-test kits to people on Grindr," Smithers said. "So we sent out messaging and free HIV home-test kits and had a staggeringly huge response rate."
"Grindr has a tremendous impact in reaching so many people in a vulnerable population," stated Dr. Lina Rosengren, lead author of the widely reported UCLA study and current infectious disease fellow at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "They would be a great organization to be at the forefront of providing this public health intervention where they can connect MSM [men seeking men] with testing and referral to treatment. It shouldn't just be government organizations and nonprofits doing this work. It's a perfect role for an organization like Grindr to fill."
But for all of Grindr's advocacy efforts, perhaps one of its greatest potentials is to change the way gay men treat each other when selecting sexual partners. "No fats, no femmes, no Asians," is a phrase utilized by a subset of Grindr users who are notoriously prejudiced when seeking partners on the app. As many writers have noted, discrimination is a major issue within the gay community, and critics insist Grindr has a responsibility to police racist, fat-shaming, and femme-phobic users.
When I posed the question of "no fats, no femmes, no Asians," to Simkhai, asking if his app has the potential to reduce prejudice within the gay community, he didn't have an answer.
"I haven't figured out how to do that," he said. "And it sounds great—it would be great to foster a kinder community, potentially. But we're a platform where we want people to meet. That's not my job, to solve societal problems."
At this moment in our conversation, I pointed out that Simkhai had contradicted himself: Earlier, the CEO had asserted that his brand's efforts with Grindr for Equality signaled a commitment to social responsibility. He paused.
"My goal, I don't think, is to have people be nicer in this world. I'm more interested in having people be freer."
We're a platform where we want people to meet. That's not my job, to solve societal problems.
As CEO of a private company, it is not necessarily Simkhai's responsibility to take on the psychic damage of the gay community. He didn't, after all, create prejudice; he created a platform where it persists. Still, the company's pro-justice rhetoric is at odds with Simkhai's unwillingness to address the discrimination the app permits.
"Dealing with life-and-death issues and access to healthcare—that's where we're interested in the social side, and less so, 'Are people being nice enough?'" Simkhai said. "To say, 'I'm only into black guys'—is that a bad thing? I think we should allow you to say that, because that's your preference."
The idea of benign racial "preferences" has long served as justification for prejudice within the gay community. Dr. Patrick Wilson, associate professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University and lead author of the study "Race-Based Sexual Stereotyping and Sexual Partnering Among Men Who Use the Internet to Identify Other Men for Bareback Sex," believes that in order to reduce prejudice in online dating, we must understand how our "preferences" are formed. "What people don't tend to acknowledge is that preference is shaped by your exposure to people who look different," Wilson said. "A lot of [our understanding of sex] comes through the images we're exposed to, whether you're looking at TV, pornography, or the kind of men you're seeing on hookup apps."
In other words, those "preferences" might actually just be prejudices. "There's a huge impact of seeing a [predominantly white, muscular] look," Wilson continued. "There are a lot of variables here, but there is a sort of 'propaganda' around what it is to be an attractive gay man. And that typically doesn't include Asians or [black men], based on the findings of our study."
To its credit, Grindr has effectively incorporated greater racial diversity in its recent branding (though toned abs continue to be the norm). And although Simkhai doesn't seem personally interested in fostering a less prejudiced Grindr community, others at the company have plans to make it a priority. Smithers said that Grindr will introduce a video campaign to directly address "no fats, no femmes, no Asians" as a part of the company's upcoming content launch.
"We're starting a video series called 'No Filter,'" Smithers explained. "We take two users completely different from each other and we have them trade profiles for a day to see what it's like to ride as someone that you're not. Then we bring them back together and talk about the issue."
But when I asked Smithers if the "No Filter" campaign will literally eliminate the "filter" function on Grindr—which allows users to filter out potential hookups based on race, body type, and weight—Smithers hesitated. "At the moment, no," he says. "The product roadmap is so incredibly big right now, the shift from A to B is a lot more complicated than just turning [it] on or off."
Disabling Grindr's filter option could perhaps be one of the most effective ways to vary the profiles users are exposed to, and therefore normalize diversity on the app. "If you have preconceived notions about black men or Asian men, it will very much shape how you interact with men on Grindr," Dr. Wilson noted. In fact, because of the filter function, you can choose to not interact with them at all.
Still, the "No Filter" campaign is a step in the right direction, and Harrison-Quintana believes starting this dialogue is essential. "I think the way racism and fat-phobia plays out in the LGBT community has so much to do with internalized homophobia," Harrison-Quintana said. "In some ways, it would be the most powerful thing Grindr could do if we could help people to address the shame about themselves. Both in terms of the benefit to every individual and [to] the internal cohesion of the LGBT community across lines of difference like race."
Only time will tell how effective any of Grindr's new initiatives will be, and if the brand can rectify its often discordant symbiosis with the gay community. But the potential is there.
"I think the core of Grindr for Equality is always going to be connecting people," Harrison-Quintana said. "Which may be the core of Grindr itself."