It wasn’t so long ago that the key tool for helping gay men to connect while traveling was a copy of the Spartacus International Gay Guide. My well-used copy from 1999 directed me to raunchy dance bars by Rome’s Termini, queer karaoke lounges in Tokyo, hot strip clubs in Mexico City, and questionable basement dives in Tunisia. Making those connections wasn’t always straightforward: a listing in Spartacus would sometimes lead you to a dead end, to a venue that had switched orientation or shut down.
Finding the LGBT community has now become more technological, because many of us carry in our pockets a mobile device that can instantly connect us to other gay guys in our area, no matter where we are in the world. Once downloaded onto a smartphone or tablet, geo-social networking applications like Grindr, Scruff, Jack’d, GROWLr, and Hornet pinpoint our precise location on the planet, plus the location of those around us who also use these apps, then display the results in a tantalizing grid of possibilities.
The first of these apps, Grindr, launched March 25, 2009. It has since seen more than ten million user downloads in 192 countries including Azerbaijan, Djibouti, Moldova, and Yemen. It’s even seen usage in the DMZ between North and South Korea. In fact, Grindr is used in every country in the world except for two small island nations: Nauru and Tuvalu. With over five million active monthly users worldwide, and with up to 300,000 users logged in at any given moment, it’s a useful tool for finding “Mr. Right or Mr. Tonight.”
I asked founder and CEO Joel Simkhai how Grindr came to be. “You always wonder who else is gay. In any location, you’re looking around, wondering who’s gay, right?” he asks. “Unfortunately there was no technological solution to that problem. There was really no real-time solution for figuring out who’s around. That’s what I was really trying to solve.
“The second generation iPhone came out in June 2008, and I immediately knew that was the piece of technology that I wanted,” Joel continues. “A mobile location-aware device that knows where you are, is always in your hand, and that you can interact with. I’ve got one, you’ve got one, now we can communicate, now we can see where we are.”
Rival apps Scruff, Jack’d, and GROWLr followed in 2010, targeting more masculine scruffy guys, younger guys, and bears respectively. Hornet joined the fray in 2011, with the intention of being a more community-driven app that gay men could use for socializing, networking, and vacation planning as well as dating. Scruff currently boasts over seven million users worldwide, Jack’d has over five million users worldwide, while GROWLr and Hornet both have four million users worldwide.
Some claim that these and similar apps have caused a decline in the number of men going out to gay bars and clubs, resulting in the closure of gay venues. Others argue that they’ve opened everything up and taken the gay community to a whole new level of connectivity. Love them or loathe them, they’ve revolutionized the way that gay men interact.
The information on these apps is constantly updated as guys log on and off, and you can chat in real time to nearby men to find out what (or who) is hot and happening tonight.
“It’s a whole new world,” says Grindr’s Joel Simkhai. “Even different parts of a city are a whole new world. You walk for ten minutes, and you see a whole different set of guys. That’s the beauty of Grindr for me.”
Ideal for solving some of life’s most unfathomable mysteries (such as ‘I wonder if the hot guy who lives across the street is gay…’), these apps can also be invaluable when traveling to a new city or a new country. In order to meet and interact with local guys, you no longer need to rely on potentially out-of-date guidebooks or websites to locate gay-frequented venues. Instead, you can launch one of these apps the moment you arrive, and start chatting in real time with guys all around you.
The United States is the #1 country on Grindr, Scruff, Jack’d, GROWLr, and Hornet, gauged by numbers of active users. The United Kingdom typically places second (London in fact beats New York and Los Angeles as Grindr’s #1 city, with over 260,000 monthly active users), and the likes of France, Australia, Brazil, Canada, and Mexico have strong showings across the board. From then on, different apps are more popular in different countries, so it’s worth bearing this in mind when traveling internationally. Hornet is the largest gay social network in countries including Russia and Turkey. China and Thailand feature prominently in GROWLr’s top ten. Germany and Italy rank highest with Grindr. Spain ranks highest with Scruff. Japan and South Korea rank highest with Jack’d.
Perusing the list of where these apps are most prevalent is a good barometer for identifying the places with the biggest and most active gay scenes, which can be invaluable intelligence when planning a vacation. For example, Grindr’s top cities in terms of monthly active users are London, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, San Francisco, Sydney, Bangkok, Chicago, Boston, and Melbourne, so you know these cities will all have vibrant gay scenes with dozens of gay venues as well as gay-friendly restaurants and accommodation.
“One of the interesting things is our data,” Joel agrees. “We actually just pulled some numbers on the World Cup in Brazil, just in the period of the World Cup. So we compared it to a similar period, and we saw that our sessions were up by about a third,” he adds.
“We have five million men monthly…so we have a lot of information. The question is now leveraging it. What do you do with it, and how do you ensure privacy?” he asks.
Privacy is in fact a major consideration, as Joel elaborates: “We don’t require you to upload a photo, we don’t require you to use your real name, we don’t require you to log in with Facebook. And that’s by design. We don’t want you to feel obligated to share that kind of information, because some people are private. We just did a survey, and I think about 15% of our users are closeted.”