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Geolocation, Location, Location: Interview With Grindr CEO Joel Simkhai

In three short years, social apps for smart phones have fundamentally changed how gay men meet and interact. Joel Simkhai, founder and CEO of Grindr—the app that provides users with the opportunity to see a plethora of profiles of other men who are nearby using a smart phone’s GPS technology—has seen this first-hand. Always an early adopter of technology, the self-professed “gadget guy” believes that it was inevitable that Grindr would come along. Not only was new location-aware technology like the iPhone becoming ubiquitous, but gay culture was also in a state of flux.

“I’m a product of AOL chat rooms, especially my gay identity,” says Simkhai. “I came out online first and then to the real world or the offline world.” In these environments, there was still the opportunity to remain somewhat private, hidden and, yes, closeted. Not everyone shared photos or details about themselves on their profile pages. Websites like Gaydar, Dudesnude, Manhunt, Adam4Adam, Fridae, Friendster and so on allowed online gay identity to progress incrementally. And then came Facebook.

Looking back on the previous decade, it is apparent that this shift in user behaviour was precipitated by the advent of Facebook, something Simkhai readily acknowledges. In many respects, Facebook worked towards demystifying gay life on a global scale. With a social environment now available to integrate life content with a diverse society of every persuasion, class level, creed, nationality and orientation, the stage was laid bare in a profoundly powerful way, revealing LGBT life as it is: something not to fear, but to celebrate.

“We are now comfortable with an online identity… with presenting ourselves online… with our name being out there,” says Simkhai, “with people knowing what we’re doing. We’re comfortable with this oversharing thing that we’re now doing.” Which plays into the success of Grindr and the like. Simkhai believes that user appropriation of evolving technology has helped the contemporary gay man evolve his sense of self, and share that awareness with the world.

New modifications to Grindr, including filtering options—find your twink! bear! jock! muscle boy!—as well as a new slide-screen menu, are features that have already been integrated into other competitor apps. Blendr, released last year, also intitiated by Simkhai, and styled along the lines of Grindr, hopes to integrate a cross-orientation mix of users looking to meet other like people who live close to them, both geographically and figuratively speaking. Blendr is being marketed as less about finding people for casual sexual encounters than it is about establishing relationships. It is a big world out there, and it is not conducive for many of us to travel extensively to meet someone we like. The key, once again, is in the hope of finding that someone close by. Connections can take on many forms.

People in urban centres like Toronto, New York or London may take apps like Grindr for granted, but the app is global. Its power in connecting gay men in more repressed areas of the world can be culturally transformative. “I think that’s powerful, especially in countries where there are no bars, where there is no gay culture, where there is no gay anything; countries where the president says there are no gay people,” says Simkhai. “And we’ve got users there, so to me I hope that’s very empowering to them. Because I think that is the biggest barrier in the coming out process… feeling so alone.”

Originally published in IN Toronto Magazine, October 2012 issue.
Editor: Gordon Bowness

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