Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
GPS-enabled apps have changed the going-out culture in the city.
Shame on the spoilsports who have already debunked the story of London’s massive Olympic Grindr overload. This week, news came that East London had experienced a total outage of the gay dating app Grindr right when masses of athletes started arriving in the area’s Olympic Village. Londoners have since been debating who caused the surge for the app, which employs GPS to help users locate other profiles nearby. Was it athletes looking for a warm welcome, locals hoping to bag an Olympian, or bored army security personnel desperate for a break from bag search training? Or could it possibly have been all three together? This last option might have explained the loud noises coming from the Olympic Park last night, officially ascribed to opening ceremony rehearsals.
Predictably, someone from Grindr has turned up admitting there’s no implicit link between athletes arriving and their network’s failure. All the same, the story still reveals how much has changed in the way gay city dwellers use the towns they live in. It may not be the default app of choice for this year’s Olympians, but Grindr and its competitors (there are several) have shaken up gay city life in significant, interesting ways.
Before the Internet, gay men in cities often lacked opportunities to meet partners during everyday life, but at least had networks of busy bars to meet up in. For a group whose identity was as much social as sexual (this social identity partly created by the bonding pressure of homophobia), these places were essential. They were about far more than just pick-ups, though that happened plenty too. When online dating took off around a decade ago, these bars’ crowds started to thin out - many gay men relieved to avoid places sometimes overpriced, shrill or just plain skanky. But while Internet dating might have been more convenient, the small social holes it created drained gay city life of some of its color.
Now that GPS apps are popular, there’s no need for men to stay home with their computers. In fact, if you’re looking for company, there’s a distinct advantage to seeking out places where other men congregate (though not necessarily gay bars) as apps show you user profiles in your immediate area first. A central cafe terrace is a better bet for GPS chatting than the average apartment – gay friends living in London’s suburbs tell me that they discovered, got disappointed by and learned to ignore their few Grindr-using neighbors within weeks of moving in. Apps still lead to the odd absurdity, such as friends checking their phones more than talking, or bars full of men too busy with their phones to notice curious people around them. Still, at least all these guys are leaving the house again, and city life is mildly richer for it.
This might make app users’ sex lives sound effortless, but the tongue in cheek coverage of London’s Olympic Grindr outage misses the real dirty truth. What we’re really talking about here is no recreation of the Roman Empire’s final days, but something far more prosaic. Just like Facebook or Twitter, dating apps can end up becoming just one more stream of electronic admin, with window-shopping, flirtation and rejection (anecdotally) far more common than actually meeting up. Grindr users near London’s Olympic Park may be hoping for something more, but most likely they’ll just be fielding answers to dull messages along the lines of “sup?” or its London counterpart “allright m8”. If anyone actually hooks up with an athlete on this time-waster's weapon of choice, they probably deserve Olympic medals for perseverance.