by Ben McNair 05/08/2015
Grindr is one of multiple apps designed for men who have sex with men (MSMs), but to be certain it is the most well-known among them. Since its release in 2009, the app has had more than 10 million downloads worldwide and boasts more than five million monthly users. There are users on all ends of the globe, but since Manchester is widely regarded as one of the 'queerer' cities in the UK, it's a great place to study the ways in which guys use the app.
Before I go any further, let me clarify. I'm spending the summer researching Grindr, but in reality I'm a long-time user. I've used the app over the past four years across three continents; through Grindr I've met a few shags (okay, more than a few), some great dates, some terrible dates, and a (now ex-) boyfriend. For me, Grindr has become an essential part of my personal life. It's the first app I download when I get a new smartphone, and it's the first app I open when I'm visiting a new place. It's one of the first apps I open in the morning and one of the last I open before bed. It's the first app I open when I'm feeling 'randy', too.
This summer, then, I find myself relating to Grindr in two very different ways. On one hand, I approach Grindr as a user -- more specifically, a newly-single user looking for whatever comes my way. At home and around town I scroll through the profiles that appear nearby: He's cute! Great smile, amazing abs. He looks interesting... I'm gonna message him. But on the other, I approach Grindr as a researcher. As a researcher I still scroll through profiles that appear around the city, but in this alternative capacity I find myself picking apart the different parts of profiles. I analyze photographs, demographic information, and authored narratives. What do the disparate profile parts mean, and what do they say when considered as a whole? Where are the (in)consistencies in certain profiles, and what do they say about the guys who created those profiles? How might certain profiles encourage or inhibit interaction with other users? Do the ways in which he has designed his profile speak to larger trends in the neighborhood or Manchester at large?
About a month ago I met a new guy for a coffee; we'd chatted on an app similar to Grindr for a few weeks before we met, but in person we went through the standard first-meeting topics anyway. Where are you from? What do you do in Manchester? What are you studying? I told him about this project and he took an interest. Coffee became drinks, and drinks became... well, I'll let you guess. A couple of weeks after we met he found me on Grindr and sent me a message. 'Randy or researching?' he asked playfully. He wanted to know why I was online: Was I there to find someone to get off with, or was I there collecting data? I replied: 'Researching, of course!'
But was I? Now that I'm using the same app in two different ways, there isn't always a clear delineation between randy and research; I don't schedule certain hours for checking out profiles to see who's cute and other hours for analyzing narrative sections of profiles. It's sort of a jumbled mix. When I'm feeling randy, my inner researcher still comes out. He's hot and I want him to come over later, but that bit of his profile is odd. What could that mean? It works the other way around, too. His headline doesn't match his 'About Me' and his photo is problematic, but how cute is he, seriously? I should message him...
As ethnographers we're encouraged to be interested and invested in our research sites -- be they physical or virtual -- but it gets complicated when the sites where we research are the same ones in which we've been involved for a long time beforehand. When a site we're so involved and invested in becomes a site of social research, it seems impossible to completely divorce ourselves from the ways in which we acted in the site before we started the research. What's more, is it worth doing so? In this jumbled mix of randy and researching, maybe I'll find some answers.