The Internet has fundamentally altered the ways in which gay men meet, especially with the recent proliferation of broadband Internet, social-networking, and GPS-equipped cellphones.
As most 365gay.com readers know, previous generations of gay men had to walk three miles uphill in the snow to hookup. Today, we have Grindr. Getting a blowjob is about as difficult as ordering a pizza.
If you’re not hip to Grindr, or you don’t have a smartphone, you might be familiar with one of the many other online services gay men utilize—adam4adam, Manhunt, DList, Find Fred, Gay.com, Out in America, etc.
Like gay bars, these services serve a practical need. While straight men live in a world where, say, 95% of the women they encounter could at least potentially be attracted to them, gay men live in a world where 95% of the men they encounter would not be, under any circumstance.
So we seek situations where the probability of meeting someone is higher. We want better odds.
Lest you think my familiarity with these services comes merely from research for this column, I admit that I have profiles on more than one.
At 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, logging onto adam4adam and filtering for Dayton returns 287 options with handles like “TeddyBare57” – who notes that he’s “looking for love” alongside a picture of his unremarkable penis – and “AbercromBGuy86,” whose otherwise blank profile suggests that the only thing I need to know about him is where he buys his cargo shorts.
Page after page of available men willingly share their “stats” and desires: age, weight and height; for safe sex or bareback, group sex or one-on-one, rimming, nipple play, sex toys, and much, much more. With so many acronyms to decipher—S&M, B&D, PNP—it can feel a bit like playing Scrabble. In a bathhouse.
You can specify if you’re looking for “right now” or later, lock and unlock photos for specific users, and friend or “block” them. You can even see the people who looked at your profile and decided not to contact you, triggering distressing little moments of self-doubt.
After a few minutes on adam4adam, a buzzer announces new messages from “StraightActN,” who introduces himself with a not-especially-thoughtful “u r hawt,” and “CumSlam80,” who inquires of my profile,”whats a cinephile?”
Something tells me he’d be disappointed to find out.
For me, these services have become bad Internet habits, browser tabs I open not because I’m looking to hookup or meet Mr. Right on a Wednesday night, but because they can be sort of fun.
But they can also make for a lonely, wasted evening.
And therein lies much of my concern: that in their abundance of possibility these services promote a culture of rising expectations, and, in turn, loneliness.
The services encourage us to turn our predilections into requirements, confusing improbable fantasies with expectations. As a result, many gay men fear succeeding with someone as much as they fear rejection—why settle if you can hold out for the man of your dreams?
A user of these services functions as both the product and consumer, the objectified and the objectifier. An inch too tall, a year too old, or a mile too far, and you may be filtered out of consideration by an unsympathetic search algorithm. Never mind that in person you might break all his usual rules and surprise him with your shared love of chess: if he isn’t sold by your photo and line of text, you’ll never get the chance. Alternatively, it may be you who filters someone out that you shouldn’t.
In this way, gay men are becoming their stats. But while these stats might tell us far more about someone than we could comfortably glean in person they might not be the most important things to tell.
Perhaps worse, these services’ abundance of choice hastens the social-networking phenomenon of replacing a few deep relationships with a mass of shallow contacts. Intimacy is cheap, online and off. We juggle multiple possibilities only to readily and callously dismiss those we tire of, perhaps for fear of investing too deeply in one.
To be sure, these services have positives. Many younger gays find affirmation of their normality on them, especially in rural areas where they may feel isolated. I found my first boyfriend online, years before I’d set foot in a gay club.
But the last time I set foot in a gay club I was mystified. Approaching a guy the “old-fashioned” way meant vying with their device for attention. Looking at all of the guys who ostensibly came to the club to meet one another instead transfixed like bugs by the glow of tiny, private screens had me feeling double-rainbow incredulous: what does it mean!?
It means lonely gay men whose hard-earned, real-world communities have been hijacked by for-profit web services. It means that the experience of finding someone is rigidly dictated and limited by the design whims of programmers. It means the death of flirting and the rise of people who’d rather virtually “poke” someone than face the absolute social horror of approaching them in the flesh.
I worry that we’re becoming tools of our tools, a community of strangers connected for connection’s sake. It’s dehumanizing. And completely unsexy.
Chase Whiteside is a guest columnist at 365gay.com while John Corvino, “The Gay Moralist,” is on break. Whiteside is one half of the documentary film organization New Left Media: http://newleftmedia.com
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