Grindr, Craigslist, and the virtual erosion of LGBTQ turf
This past week, gays around the world hunted down the universally understood exploding-head emoji upon learning that Grindr — the popular dating (OK, fine, hookup) app used by more than 3.5 million gay, bisexual, and transgender men — was sharing sensitive user information with third-party companies. Among this sensitive information? Just the usual stuff: e-mail address, phone ID, location info, HIV status.
As the old expression goes: Homo says what?
According to Grindr chief security officer Bryce Case, the wildfire outrage over the revelations in the initial Buzzfeed report was based on “a misunderstanding of technology.” In this case, the misunderstood technologies were app optimization services Apptimize and Localytics (names that I did not come up with just now in a convincing attempt to spoof tech company names), which were respectively employed by Grindr to create “a new opt-in feature that would allow users to be reminded to get tested for HIV” and (savory with irony) “analyze our own behavior.” After a few days of analyzing its behavior, Grindr halted the practice of sharing its users’ HIV status with third-party companies’ random people (hence referred to as randos).
But those randos are a major factor in what’s fueling the sustained gay rage toward Grindr in the wake of this episode.
In the current context of social-media mistrust, the Grindr debacle may seem of a piece with Facebook’s recent failure to safeguard its billions of quiz-prone users (guilty!) from scheming data-scraping operations. Here’s Grindr’s Case talking to BuzzFeed after the blow-up: “It’s being conflated with Cambridge Analytica. This is just something we use for internal tooling,” he said. “I will not admit fault in the regard that the data was used.”
All well and good, but Case’s case — that gays ought to chillax about their HIV status making the rounds among harmless optimization types because, according to an Axios interview, “There is a difference . . . between a ‘software platform we use for debugging and optimization purposes’ as opposed to ‘a firm that’s trying to sway elections’ ” — reaches near Rose Nylund levels of missing the point.
The big gay heart of the problem is that within our culture, randos are eyed with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion, and rightly so.
After all, the threat of randos is why we built all those bars with no windows (the ones that are closing down because we built all these apps). They’re why we speak in a code of muted slang passed down through generations like ersatz surnames. They’re why those of us who came of age in the ’90s often met by ducking into the darkness of a club or dialing a 976 phone line. And they’re why we took so quickly to the Internet. Even in its infancy, its vast network of cumbersomely coded bulletin boards, listservs, webrings, message boards, chat rooms, shaky ICU2 connections, and anonymous forums allowed us to find each other once we’d found ourselves.
One of those places was Craigslist, where the loose language of its anonymous halls extended a strange virtual freedom: “men seeking men,” “women seeking women,” “strictly platonic” (for the newbies), “casual encounters,” and the engrossing bottled messages of “missed connections.” There, the formative shorthand of AOL chat rooms grew into the pragmatic argot of online cruising, efficiently conveying relevant stats, details, and limits (and often spelling out phone numbers to avoid web spiders that discouraged such disclosures) in a way that you couldn’t do over the thump of a Gloria Gaynor edit.
I switched to the past tense there because the Senate recently voted 97-2 to pass the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which is intended to level stiffer penalties on websites that facilitate sex trafficking and prostitution, but is already having broader consequences. Immediately following the passage of the bill, which had already been approved by the House and is expected to be signed into law by President Trump, Craigslist killed its personals. (Nothing personal.)
“Any tool or service can be misused,” read a statement posted by Craigslist. “We can't take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking Craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day. To the millions of spouses, partners, and couples who met through Craigslist, we wish you every happiness!”
Or as the Washington Post put it less charitably in a headline, “Goodbye, Craigslist personals ads. Those seeking casual sex will miss you.” Again, not the greatest way to frame the situation.
In fact, my personal case of stinkface over the loss of a sentimental commons for an emergent queer culture is nothing compared to the life-and-death stakes that open forums like Craigslist represent to more vulnerable members of the LGBTQ acronym.
As pointed out by ACLU attorney Chase Strangio in a blog post responding to FOSTA’s passage, “Whether because LGBT people — particularly those of color, transgender women, and youth — face job discrimination, family rejection, homelessness, and criminalization or because our bodies and desires are at once demonized and exoticized, our community has long-turned to the sex industry for critical means of support and survival.” In rightly seeking to protect victims of sex trafficking, FOSTA’s overreach removes the ability for sex workers to safely control their conditions.
Certainly, Craigslist personals were far from perfect, and nothing but a hive of nameless transactions — a virtual hotbed of randos, if they were truly a concern. But those endless rows of blue Times New Roman felt like an affirmation: A world of us was out there, and we were looking for each other. That went a long way. I never knew who they were, but there they were. We’ve long found our safety in numbers, not names.
The loss of real-world queer physical turf has become the stuff of resigned sighs and shrugs among many LGBTQ folks. Watching brick-and-mortar centers of our shared history in Boston and elsewhere transition into condos and additional parking feels like less of a pressing problem when your social life is slim enough to fit in your pocket.
But the erosion of those virtual spaces we claim as our own — whether due to social-media privacy pitfalls or to legislation — seems to me far more menacing than the shuttering of another dark bar. If things online keep sliding in this direction, we may have no choice but to reconnect on the dance floor, the old-fashioned way.