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Breed or Bleed: Why is the Grindr user-experience so polarising?

Written by Lucas van Schaardenburg (they/them; no, he/him, I'm the g.o.a.t.) | @schaarsartor | Contributing Writer

TW: Sex, Sexuality

What's orange, black and squirts you white? It's probably a location-based gay hookup app, with 69.9 million downloads and a revenue growth of 33% last year. The Grindr app is a cultural phenomenon in the world of gay, bisexual, and queer men; this sticky manifestation of technology meets genitals is a peculiar digital-physical realm that indulges the breeding habits of many queer folks. Although the app's purpose is purely for lighthearted contact sports, its existence is a surprisingly contentious divergence within the world of rainbow folk. I've been dabbling with Grindr for five years. I also coincidentally have a lot of gay friends, some of whom use the network to become a fertility donation centre every Monday, Wednesday, and Sunday, whilst Other participants in this culture are haunted by a lingering taste of revolt and enough trauma for that week's therapy session. Even outside my pool of acquaintances, reactions to Grindr fracture between expressions of 'yum!' and 'ugh.' As a little guy doing design, my only opinion is from an inquisitive perspective: Why do some users get bred into the system while others get bled out? 

Upon entering the app, what is revealed is a grid design like a chocolate box. Each square offers a savoury experience, from twinks to bears to daddies, all in your area. This visually abundant selection of suitors is designed to stimulate a sensation of belonging and sexual freedom. In the long-term, the reinforcement of those feelings has shown favourable results, from lowering internalised homophobia to embracing feelings of sexual empowerment. However, it can also be an objectifying experience, with the grid layout of the interface functioning as a fleshy marketplace where one visual appeal is one capital. Often, this contours casual sex to be a transactional affair, with each person within the grid lair bare to be compared and analysed against one another, evaluating what body will reap the most sexual gain. 

From here, you either engage with the app passively or with an outcome-based approach, scrolling through their grid and observing profiles to directly message profiles for recreational activities. Although the interface was initially designed for casual sex, it developed to facilitate many needs, including friendship, community, socialising, dating, and entertainment - It's an adaptable UX experience. When the intended gratification cannot be met, one can move to meet another social need within the app. Grindr's ability to facilitate many types of connections is crucial for individuals to connect with other queer and gay individuals in new environments, living in restrictive cultural backgrounds and rural areas. The filter system helps to maximise navigation within the grid by personalising it to your interest and other users' availability. 

Yet, the app's efficiency in connecting users within this UI is questionable; it offers the illusion of accessible connection and proficiency to prolong users' engagement with the app, while other similar app interfaces, such as Tinder and Bumble, limit the number of users you can swipe each day. Grindr doesn't have such a regulation. What comes into effect is two addictive principles: variable ratio reinforcement, in which the desired outcome from the interface is rewarded at unpredictable intervals; depending on other users' availability, interest, and transportation, you may arrange a hookup instantly or wait for hours. The latter is the media system dependency model; the more you engage with the program, the more essential it becomes for you. This design is further driven by the 5-8 times the average Grindr user opens the app throughout the day to check notifications. Excessive daily use can be a problematic cycle, generating feelings of guilt due to a lack of self-control and internalised slut shaming, which worsens self-esteem, leading to further use of the app to meet temporal sexual gratification as a coping mechanism to escape these negative sensations and reinflate self-esteem.  

You spot a profile you are interested in, perhaps a nice shirtless torso. You observe on their profile a mutual interest in nipples; this tickles your sausage, and you slide into those DMs with some poetic introduction such as 'up2' 'looking?" '*sends dick pic*.' The primary purpose of Grindr's direct messages is gratification, logistics and risk assessment. The openness to express self-disclosure within these chats offers a means of empowerment to control one’s sex life. Digital spaces provide the room to negotiate the type of intercourse, as well as when and where you do the deed. Risk and safety are measured in these conversations, from photo sharing, asking questions, and cross-platform checking to hosting the encounter at a familiar location such as your home. However, these risk assessment techniques only tackle the perceived risk, not the actual risk. Ultimately, you are facilitating a meeting with an unknown stranger in an unfamiliar location to do a private and vulnerable act. None of these risk assessment techniques are adequately secure when an actual risk appears - this can range from catfishing to sexual violence to sexual health. The anonymity, privacy and temporal nature of casual sex can often endorse this wrong type of behaviour. 

Upon meeting Mr. Shirtless Torso and having his meaty sabre afflict your rear, you might contemplate to yourself,’ How could the Grindr interface become a more positively sexy experience? Recently, the app has widened into a lifestyle app; as user experience becomes multi-faceted on the site, Grindr wants to appeal to a more diverse outcome. They also recently updated the interface to provide at-home HIV test kits directly from the app to support queer individuals' sexual wellbeing. In the next few months, we may see the upcoming installation of an AI feature. However, none of these probe the more significant issues surrounding Grindr. With this year marking the app's 15th birthday, I wonder what kind of effect Grindr will have in another fifteen years and how it will evolve to meet the needs of its users and impact the culture around sex. 


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