Grindr Is Nobody's Friend

Grindr Is Nobody's Friend

Since it was shuttered in early 2019, the LGBTQ-themed website Into, launched by Grindr, has frequently been positioned as a media casualty, evidence of the shambolic state of queer publishing (and perhaps the shambolic state of media, period). A sprawling 2019 Buzzfeed article by former Into managing editor Trish Bendix used her layoff as a jumping-off point to explore the state (as well as history and apparently bleak future) of LGBTQ media. More recently, a piece in Mel (a site launched by Dollar Shave Club, which is a fact I would like you to keep in your head while you read this), contextualized the disintegration of Into within a bigger picture of upheavals and downsizing at such queer and queer-adjacent outlets as Out, The Advocate, Instinct, them, and Mic.

It is not absurd to survey the landscape and report back that the earth has been scorched. It has been. It’s curious to witness a queer-media drought at a time when queer people are more visible (and perhaps more numerous, at least in terms of those who are out) than ever. In the absence of extensive data, we can only guess whether the problem is overall reader apathy, disinterest in reading about niche queer content, or issues with the specific content that has been published. None of the sites mentioned were doing consistent blockbuster numbers, regardless of whatever upswings or momentum they may have achieved via editorial tinkering.

Perhaps the straight men who have acquired some of these companies don’t possess the patience for proper growth.

Perhaps the straight men who have acquired some of these companies (like Grindr and Pride Media, which runs Out and The Advocate) don’t possess the patience for proper growth. Patience and empathy rarely factor into co-opting. Maybe they expected more than what they got, and hey, millionaires have to stay millionaires so tough decisions must be made.

The aforementioned Mel story is pegged to a Grindr editorial relaunch of sorts, the embarrassingly titled website Bloop. Creating a new site seems like an objectively shitty move, as it comes a little more than a year after Grindr shuttered its news and culture site in order to, it said in so many words, pivot to video. And here’s a new site driven by words (though they are pithier and not as journalistically inclined as Into was). Sometimes the earth is scorched by arson.

But in the posthumous assessment of what Into’s demise meant for queer culture and media, a point that I rarely see made or given any serious consideration is that the website was itself a pivot. Into’s story is as much a branding story as a media one. By the mid-’10s, former Grindr CEO/mastermind Joel Simkhai and other employees were positioning Grindr as something broader than a hook-up app: a hub for gay culture. A 2016 Vice article quoted Grindr’s press materials announcing the company’s lofty aspiration to be “the preeminent global gay lifestyle brand.” In interviews, Simkhai had long downplayed the function Grindr was best-known (and, it seems reasonable to assume, most widely used) for: finding casual sex. (“We are also a non-adult service and we’re firm believers in being able to meet people in a non-sexual environment,” he said in an interview with Online Personals Watch in 2010, the year after Grindr debuted.) Into was the company’s most visible and intricate attempt to shed its seedy reputation. It was right there in its pitch, as editor-in-chief Zach Stafford recalled in his goodbye letter posted in December 2018:

The thought was this: If Grindr is the largest network of queer people to ever exist in the world, then any content built on top of that network shouldn’t be about what Grindr is infamously known for, but rather what happens off that app.Stafford retrospectively explained the site’s angle from a philosophical perspective, but focusing on LGBTQ culture and not sex made financial sense as well. Advertisers are simply more wary of sexual content. In a 2017 Digiday story about the site’s launch, Grindr’s VP of marketing Peter Sloterdyk said, “Not every company wants to advertise in a dating app. But Into’s content is very different from the app. With Into’s launch, we are introducing Grindr as a total lifestyle brand.”

Expanding is what brands do, which means that it’s not shocking that Grindr sought ways to grow beyond its initial offering of connecting men. (In the years since its establishment, it has become more trans-inclusive, and Into’s array of representation, in fact, superseded Grindr’s). However, Grindr’s distancing of itself from the thing that made its name—sex—reminded me of very basic gay respectability politics: The reduction of that which the broader culture finds unsightly for the sake of mass appeal. By design, Into rarely, if ever, contended with elements of gay culture that Grindr helped facilitate, if not proliferate, like meth, STIs, or public/group sex. It’s virtually impossible to determine how much of this was a copout versus a seemingly savvy business decision.

Into rarely, if ever, contended with elements of gay culture that Grindr helped facilitate

This is not to disparage the journalists who took jobs at Into and poured their time and talent into their work. The site hardly invented the concept of the editorial sex allergy. Regardless of platforms’ demographics and focus, sex remains underrepresented in media across the board. (I often think about this 2017 New York Times piece about the state of LGBTQ nightlife in NYC that didn’t mention sex, despite the city by then being home to a thriving sex party scene.) But if Grindr established Into for reasons beyond a commitment to quality journalism—and it seems clear that it did so for the sake of bolstering its brand—the site’s demise likely says more about its parent brand’s quest for cultural domination than it does the state of queer media. It is, in key ways, a special case.

In a 2015 Daily Beast article regarding Grindr’s pivot to lifestyle, Simkhai claimed of his designs for expansion: “It’s not about the money. It’s about what gay men want in their lives, and how we can help get them to those things faster than anyone else.” But running a business attached to an app that was valued in the hundreds of millions is not philanthropy, and Simkhai sometimes talked out of both sides of his mouth regarding his responsibility to his community. In the aforementioned Vice article, he was needled over what appeared to be a shifting moral center regarding his blasé attitude toward sexual racism versus a commitment to advocacy vis a vis the Grindr for Equality global initiative: “My goal, I don’t think, is to have people be nicer in this world. I’m more interested in having people be freer,” he said. And then: “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?’ 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.”

In a different 2016 interview, Simkhai expressed a similar apathy towards bigotry on Grindr: “I don’t like it, but it’s not my job to police such things. I’m not a sixth-grade teacher.” (In 2018, Grindr launched the initiative Kindr to help combat discrimination. Simkhai had left the company by that point.)

This is to say nothing of the app’s other transgressions—security breaches, the sharing of users’ HIV status with third parties, accusations of transphobia, a flaw that allowed users to pinpoint the exact location of other users even if they had opted to keep their location secret. Beijing Kunlun Tech Co Ltd purchased a majority stake in Grindr in 2016, and then in 2018 it bought out the remainder of the company. Simkhai left the company upon the deal’s closure. Then in November 2018, Grindr president Scott Chen posted on Facebook (in Chinese): “Some people think that marriage is a holy union between a man and a woman, I think so too, but that’s your own business.” Into reported on his words and Chen called the Into piece “unbalanced and misleading” in its comments section. According to a 2019 Buzzfeed story, chronicling general turmoil at the company, Chen assured Into writers during an ensuing internal town hall that no cuts would be made as a result of the piece’s publication. Within months, there were mass layoffs.

With friends like these, you know? It’s impossible to detangle capitalist greed from such general disregard for the community Grindr serves, but the attitudes of its management do make sense, at least in retrospect. Expecting social consciousness and goodwill from a hook-up app is like asking a gloryhole for emotional support. Grindr owes its popularity to one thing and one thing only: connecting queer people.

Yet the pressure points of Into’s demise are is in some ways an abject lesson— a preview of how difficult it would be to forge a profitable media entity for this new era of queer life. While private human interaction has changed radically, thanks in part to tools like Grindr, queerness has become more mainstream. It is something that need not necessarily intimidate straight people anymore, at least when packaged properly (see: Pete Buttigieg). It makes sense that a wave of media financiers have smelled opportunity in this cultural shift and reacted by funding places that could appeal to a supposed broad spectrum of queerness. But this centrist approach to LGBTQ media, formerly a place of radical ideas and expressive risks, hasn’t seemed to strike the right chord, or find the right audience. What the audience of queer readers is into, though, remains to be seen.

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