Last month, on a blustery night the week before Christmas, my friend Jeff Ferzoco and I sat alone in a gay club in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood discussing Grindr, the mobile dating app used daily by five million gay men around the world. We’d arrived at the bar too early, he assured me. By the end of the night, he said, “it will be so crowded people will be using it just to see who’s in the room.”
I believed him, because earlier that year I had seen Jeff navigate the social terrain of Manhattan’s East Village this way. Ferzoco is a designer, the former creative director of New York’s Regional Plan Association, and the author of The You-City, which envisions a smart city five minutes into the future. As such, he’s someone who thinks a lot about how our phones are changing our relationship with public space. Instead of using Grindr (or his preferred alternative, Scruff) to meet men from the comfort of his couch, he keeps tabs on his friends who are already out to decide when and where to join them.
Walking up 2nd Ave. that night in August, Ferzoco had held his phone before him like a compass, checking to see whether we were getting closer to his friends or moving farther away. Scruff, like Grindr, reveals other users’ proximity as the crow flies, but doesn’t disclose their exact location — at least not intentionally. He had mentally mapped the app’s generic distances onto the Manhattan grid (“Two-hundred-and-fifty feet is about a block-and-half,” he said) and could reference his location against a list of their usual haunts. On that night, he found them at a bar called Nowhere.
For all the handwringing about “hookup” apps undermining monogamy, fewer have wondered how their use of proximity to serve up potential matches is changing users’ perceptions of the city. Based on sheer numbers and intensity, they must be. Grindr’s rise was a watershed in a cruising culture that had always relied on coded signals and assignations in public space. Today, 38 million messages are exchanged daily through the app, many in countries where homosexuality is a capital crime.
Many observers doubted whether Grindr’s meat market would translate to straight dating until Tinder’s arrival. The notoriously addictive app has been downloaded more than 40 million times in less than three years and at last count was making 14 million matches daily. Depending on who you ask, it’s worth somewhere between $500 million and $5 billion to its parent, IAC.
Yet another app, named Happn, has brought proximity to the fore. Instead of advertising those immediately nearby, it traces users’ circumambulations through the city via GPS, only revealing them to each other after their paths have crossed within 250 meters. Happn essentially manufactures missed connections, and the more people who pass through the same sliver of space-time, the more connections they might make.
While Ferzoco and I waited in the empty club for the party to start, Happn offered me a steady stream of candidates centered on Union Ave. and Grand Street two blocks away, at the intersection of two long strips of restaurants and bars. The majority were new encounters, but the app noted if we had crossed paths two or three or even a dozen times before — a curiosity-sparking feature leveraging our movements through public space.
Happn’s creators are understandably more forthright than their larger rivals about the role cities will play in its eventual success. “We’re a big city app,” says spokeswoman Marie Cosnard. “There’s no point in beginning in 200 countries — it’s just the cities that interest us.” Launched a year ago in Paris, Happn has more than a million users worldwide, with the largest concentration in London. New York was its first American city, with 80,000 users; Los Angeles and Chicago are next.
But the bigger questions are whether the information provided by these apps — how many eligible, attractive people there are, and where — has begun shaping users’ behavior, and if so, for better or worse. A friend of mine who formerly worked for an online dating company bemoans Tinder’s short-circuiting of serendipity. Describing a bus ride in Manhattan last summer in which she looked up from Tinder long enough to fruitlessly make eyes at another rider too engrossed in the app himself, she says, “it was just so depressing to think that a few years ago, there would at least be a chance that you could look around and make eye contact with someone. But now we were both obsessed with looking for guys or girls on the app that we didn’t notice who was around us.”
For that reason, Cosnard says, Happn declines to display profiles in real time. “It works passively,” she says, “so you can really enjoy being in the real world, and use the app for missed encounters you can look up later on.”
Research suggests this duality — i.e., leveraging our physical presence in public space to deepen the experience online later — is becoming the norm. Telecom Paristech sociologist Christian Licoppe has studied the intersection of mobility, proximity and human behavior for more than a decade. In a series of forthcoming papers, Licoppe and his co-authors interviewed 23 French users of Grindr about their experiences with the app. What they found echoes Ferzoco’s observation that “you have to be in both places at once: online is for the people you can’t see, and offline is for the people standing in front of you.”
Licoppe and company also describe the practice of “trawling,” i.e. leaving Grindr open throughout the day so as to collect inquiries and potential matches as users move through the city — which happens to be the strategy at the heart of Happn. Finally, they argue proximity itself has become a factor in desire, with some users declaring on their profiles that anyone farther than a kilometer away is too far, while one interview subject admits to one-night stands based purely on availability. “The distance, the proximity enable the arousal,” he says.
These are particularly trenchant issues in the gay community, where Grindr and its competitors have been blamed for killing gay institutions ranging from cruising to individual gay bars to even entire “gayborhoods.” In his book There Goes the Gayborhood?, sociologist Amin Ghaziani notes a flier plastered on lampposts in Vancouver’s Davie Village warning “MORE GRINDR = FEWER GAY BARS.” In Chicago’s Boystown and Andersonville — where much of his book is set — Ghaziani quotes several residents lamenting the app’s effects on the local pickup scenes, but the author still concludes, “the Internet adds to, and builds on, other forms of communication and community; it does not supplant them.”
Cultural critic Jaime Woo , author of Meet Grindr, also pours cold water on Grindr alarmists, arguing that much of the alarm and anger directed at the app two or three years ago have subsided along with its novelty. “If you’re home,” he says, “you’re using Grindr. But if you’re out, you’re also using Grindr.”
In his book, Woo describes his habit of using the app to take the temperature of new neighborhoods when he travels. “It wouldn’t be hard to use Grindr to create a map of different types of queer men in each city,” he writes.” This is more or less the effect of Tinder’s new “Passport ” feature in the forthcoming paid “Tinder Plus” version of the app.
“We often hear that people want to be able to start swiping in a location before they’ve left to go on a trip or vacation, and that once they’ve actually made a meaningful connection with someone in a new location, their trip has come to an end,” Tinder COO (and deposed co-founder) Sean Rad told TechCrunch in November. “We also hear people saying that they want to get recommendations for places to go and where to eat in a new city, and Tinder Plus can do better at that.”
The debate over whether and how mobile dating apps are changing how we see the city won’t even begin to be settled until there is conclusive data from the apps themselves. Don’t change your plans: Tinder and Scruff did not respond to repeated requests for comment; a Grindr spokesman said the company doesn’t track the correlation between successful matches and proximity; and while Happn’s Marie Cosnard finds the question interesting, “we haven’t had time for sociological analysis,” she says.
As for Jeff Ferzoco, we finally give up on the party after half and hour and head north to Metropolitan, Williamsburg’s established gay bar where a charity fashion auction is in progress and where his friends soon join us — because of both his apps and his text messages announcing: We are here.
The column, In Public, is made possible with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Greg Lindsay is a contributing writer for Fast Company and co-author (with John D. Kasarda) of the international bestseller Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.
His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, The Financial Times, McKinsey Quarterly, World Policy Journal, Time, Wired, New York, Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler and Departures. He was previously a contributing writer for Fortune and an editor-at-large for Advertising Age. Greg is a two-time Jeopardy! champion (and the only human to go undefeated against IBM’s Watson).