More than a dating app
Dating app Grindr has defied expectations since its first appearance in 2009. PhD student Rachel Katz has begun research into use of the app in tourist-friendly Tel Aviv. Already, she suspects there is more to Grindr than just dating.
Rachels research looks at how tourists and locals use Grindr in Tel Aviv. She’s finding that the app, aimed at LGBT+ users, is changing the way people interact with each other and experience the physical spaces they’re in. Meeting a potential date is no longer consigned to certain social situations. It’s something you can do on the way to work, first thing in the morning, or even when you’re out with someone else.
Rachel says: “Because Grindr is geolocation-based and people are mobile when using it on their phones, it’s turned the experience of connection into a constant thing. It overcomes a lot of boundaries.
“A lot of approaches to studying Grindr have used a community-based theoretical approach - ‘the Grindr community’ or ‘the gay community’. I try not to use the word ‘community’ and instead use a spatial approach. People were traditionally engaged with ‘the community’ in a spatial way - they went to a community centre or a gay bar. Whereas now, people can feel like they belong anywhere as long as they are communicating with people on Grindr who are gay. It’s not confined to the idea of community.
Rachel has an MPhil in Multi-Disciplinary Gender Studies from the University of Cambridge and a BA in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Barnard College/Columbia University.
“I look at Israel because Tel Aviv is such a big tourist destination that tourism is part of the everyday. There are always tourists there, always interacting with locals. It’s nicknamed the gay capital of the Middle East, so there’s a lot of LGBT+ tourism. I was interested in seeing how that’s navigated from the local perspective and the tourist perspective on Grindr. Do tourists feel like they’re entitled to local communities, do they feel like they belong to gay local spaces because they’re gay, and how does Grindr play into it all? I don’t have the full answers yet.”
Profile pictures and masculinity
Rachel has discovered that profile images on Grindr are different in different physical locations. In Tel Aviv, known for being a ‘beach culture’, Grindr images tend towards particular interpretations of masculinity.
“The profile images on Grindr in Tel Aviv were different from other cities in Europe according to participants. Participants were commenting on the difference, and how much of it was body-focused, and also how it was a certain type of look. It tended to be tanned skin, muscular, hairy, beards, and really heteronormative masculinity. A lot of people that I was interviewing, especially the locals, felt like they didn’t fit into this ideal, or they didn’t want to fit into the ideal, or they didn’t like the ideal but felt they had to conform to it.
“I think in some ways participants expected more variety. In the US, for example, you have more feminine looking pictures, more masculine looking pictures – whatever than means to people – all sorts of different identities. Usually they’ll have their face in it, sometimes not. Whereas in Tel Aviv it was almost always a shirtless picture.”
Rachel’s master’s research at the University of Cambridge was on another dating app, Tinder. In this research, she found that it was important to many users that a profile picture contained authentic clues to someone’s character and interests. This differs from her findings about Grindr, where images seem to be used more functionally and the chat feature is where users really get to know each other.
“On Tinder, people put a lot of meaning into the visual language and they felt like it was a universal visual language. It’s a language that they themselves are constructing. They expected values and personalities to be embedded in the pictures intentionally. They’d say ‘I chose this picture because I’m doing this fun activity and that’s really important to me’, or they’d say ‘here’s a picture of me doing a political demonstration because that’s important to me’. When they talked about red flags they would say they were suspicious of a person’s real identity, or their personality.
“On dating websites you’d always choose a really flattering photo. But on Tinder most of my participants expressed that they wanted a good but realistic photo because they wanted to be liked for who they were. There was the idea of authenticity in these narratives. Whereas Grindr is very much a functional profile because you can only have one picture at a time. It’s very much about the chat feature and meeting up in person.
“I felt Grindr was completely different to Tinder which is why I wanted to study it for my PhD. Tinder follows a particular formula for success. It’s been a forerunner in the field, presenting certain things within the app that have made it successful. Grindr came around first, in 2009. There were other apps aimed at straight people but none of them really caught on until Tinder. Tinder’s aesthetically minimal; it’s one picture at a time. It’s connected to Facebook so people trust it, and it has that swiping mechanism.
“Grindr chose not to go in that direction and it’s still stayed really, really successful. No other app that has had the ‘old-school’ Grindr format has continued to be so successful. I think it’s something about what Grindr’s doing for people that makes it significant. That’s why it’s still around almost ten years later. It’s an exception to the rules about what makes dating apps successful or desirable for users in terms of the format. I think that’s because there’s a unique social role that Grindr has with people, a sociological role.”
So - given the hedonistic setting - are tourists in Tel Aviv using Grindr only for casual dates?
“Interestingly, no,” says Rachel. “A lot of times they would use it to see what the best local places were. It was a way of interacting with the locals and enhancing their experience of being tourists. Sometimes it would just be friendship. Or they’d find out where was a good party to go to, or a great gay bar.”
Some of Rachel’s participants have told her that they would reconnect with dates they had met as tourists when they returned to the location the following year. Tourists who had dated someone while on holiday would express having struggled with feelings for that person and the knowledge of having to leave them at the end of their holiday. Even within the idea of ‘hook-ups’ through Grindr, Rachel’s research is uncovering a wide range of practices among users of the app.
“I think it's something about what Grindr's doing for people that makes it significant.”
Her research has also caught the attention of the national media and the BBC interviewed her for a Valentine’s Day piece on dating in the digital age. This piece, says Rachel, highlights a small but important element of her research; the reproduction of social class through dating apps. Apps are location-based, so a user is more likely to meet someone in their local area and, potentially, their own social class.
“More people are meeting and marrying through dating apps than ever before. I think the fact that apps prioritise location does replicate issues of class in certain areas but in other ways it overcomes them. Israel is an example; where there’s an ‘Arab’ area of Tel Aviv, the more ‘Jewish area’ and the more secular area as well. Some of my participants would talk about meeting people through Grindr who were gay but not willing to come out to their families, or meeting someone who was Muslim when they were Jewish. So the boundaries are overcome in some ways because of the geographical proximity. Grindr looks at a number of kilometres in a circle – it doesn’t care about what’s a different city or area.”
Participants also talked about Grindr’s role in their experiences of coming out;
“I was really interested in people who came from very homophobic backgrounds, in terms of being from a very religious area, especially the locals in Israel. Some of them would talk about how Grindr was part of their coming out journey, because they had been communicating through Grindr and that was the only way they could reach gay people. Others eventually came out with great difficulty and then, as part of their experience of being out and gay, they would start to date and use Grindr. People also talked about deeply in-the-closet people in Jerusalem who had families and children and probably never would come out but would be on there, just looking or chatting.”
Manchester was a perfect fit for Rachel, as the University has an appetite for relevant new research.
“It’s hard to find people who are interested in studying dating apps. It’s a very niche area and Manchester’s really interested in new research. I think there needs to be more empirical research on dating apps. They really do affect people. It was nice to do my fieldwork and see the faces of people I’m affecting with my research and have them say how important it was to them.”
Find out more about postgraduate research in Sociology at The University of Manchester.