When Communication first-year Jackson Moore downloaded Grindr two years ago, he kept it for a grand total of one day.
“It was very intimidating for me,” Moore said. “If I had to describe it to people, kinky men in their thirties would definitely be the people I saw on the app.”
Launched in 2009, Grindr is the leading LGBTQ+ social networking app with roughly 13 million monthly users, according to its website. Despite similarities to other dating apps, it’s best known as an app that helps gay men find casual sex partners as opposed to long-term relationships. But like any digital outlet, it can increase loneliness, the key issue in this year’s U.S. Surgeon General advisory. According to some students, it’s an integral part of the gay male culture on Northwestern’s campus.
Moore, a New York City native, reinstalled the social networking app shortly after deleting it. He now uses it to connect with other queer men at home and at Northwestern.
“It’s something you can have a conversation about with most gay men, and they’ll be able to talk about it with you,” Moore said.
Grindr sorts profiles by proximity on a scrollable grid. Users aren’t plotted on a map, but the app’s default settings show how many feet away a user is on their profile. That means several nearby gay men are available to message, and this convenience makes Grindr a common first-contact point for young men looking to explore the LGBTQ+ community.
“I don’t think it’s a very healthy app,” Moore said. “But in a way, I do think that it’s a shared experience among a lot of gay men that can connect you.”
According to the Surgeon General’s report, time spent on digital platforms increases the chances of experiencing social isolation. The advisory targets young adults and LGBTQ+ people as at-risk groups, although the Surgeon General admits more research is needed to understand “the disproportionate impacts of social disconnection.”
Ian Holloway, a social welfare professor at UCLA, said queer people, especially gay men, see social networking as a comfortable space despite social isolation risks.
“We continue to be a community that’s stigmatized in some states,” Holloway said. “So men need these platforms as ways to connect for social support.”
Anonymity is one of Grindr’s main appeals, Holloway said. Users can show their entire face, no photos, a photo of their bare torso or anything in between on their public profiles. When combined with location-based sorting, those who lack confidence with their sexuality in-person feel empowered to reach out to others online.
“The fact that you can pick up your phone and be able to talk to another gay person at any time of the day is pretty revolutionary,” Holloway said. “We’ve seen examples in our work of guys who use these apps to alleviate social isolation.”
Although Grindr places much of the Northwestern LGBTQ+ community at its users’ fingertips, it fosters dishonesty, said a Northwestern student who chose to be identified as Kent*. He witnessed this deception firsthand after other nearby users helped him make a shocking discovery. Someone Kent was chatting with on the app said they had talked before, and after receiving screenshots of that conversation, he realized that another man was posing as him.
“A creepy old guy was using my face and photos of my body to talk to other people,” Kent said. “They could still be out there as me.”
Kent met his boyfriend on Grindr, and although they both wanted a deeper connection, he said he found most individuals usually don’t. Interactions on the app, which Kent and others said usually happen at night, often progress from small talk about school to meeting each other within a matter of hours, if not minutes. For Kent, this immediacy made him feel isolated.
“I wouldn’t be engaging with the people around me,” Kent said. “In my room, I just felt shitty. I felt like I was missing out on stuff.”
Bienen first-year Casey Weisman said although he rarely encounters anyone looking for more than quick hookups on Grindr, he thinks some people turn to the app to find long-term partners. But the app’s reputation makes it difficult to find someone who doesn’t want casual sex, he said.
“It’s going to be difficult,” Weisman said. “It’s not where I would look.”
Although Grindr embraces hookup culture, it can perpetuate malicious behavior. Jeremy Birnholtz, a Northwestern communication studies professor, said the app can feel isolating for those who don’t adhere to gay beauty standards (like having six-pack abs) or are looking for more commitment than the “no strings attached” variety, which is popular on the app. Profile information is also entirely self-reported, including HIV status, last tested date and PrEP usage, meaning it’s up to users to verify if the information they see for someone is accurate.
“When you don’t know who somebody is, you can’t hold them accountable for their actions,” Birnholtz said. “It’s very easy to behave like everybody else or just to behave however you’ve behaving but not be held accountable.”
When Moore meets someone, he verifies their identity beforehand. By connecting with them on another platform in addition to Grindr, like Snapchat, Moore can ask for more details to ensure he isn’t talking to someone with fake pictures.
“It’s very smart to get some other form of social media,” Moore said. “Snapchat is great because you can see their face in real-time.”
Although Kent said there are better ways to engage with Northwestern’s LGBTQ+ community, like affinity spaces and arts-based clubs, he said Grindr’s features make it a good place to explore if you understand what you’ll find on the app.
“Be safe and know what you’re looking for,” Kent said. “It’s an app where you’re texting someone, so you can always just stop and there’s no repercussions.”