Opinion

Rob Anderson

The gay app that veered straight

THE MOST frenetic minutes of a night at a gay club used to be the fleeting moments between last call and lights up, when everyone hoping to go home with someone else scrambled to solidify their plans.

But that was before Grindr, a popular smartphone app for gay men that enables users to chat with other users based on their GPS coordinates. Dubbed the “gay hook-up app,’’ Grindr is part dating site, part chat room, and part filtering device.

Few straight people have even heard of Grindr, and it sparks debate among gays, but it - and apps like it - are becoming a cultural force.

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In a Provincetown dance club just before last call recently, I watched as the blue screens of mobile phones lit up the dark outside patio, like fireflies on a late summer night. Instead of chatting face-to-face, dozens of guys stood around quietly, fingers tapping on their phones.

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At that moment, the implication of Grindr hit me: For millions of men around the world, the thin line between reality and virtual reality, between room and chat room, had vanished.

Whenever I explain Grindr to my straight friends, they ask the same question. “Why isn’t there a similar app for us?’’ Now there is.

On one hand, it makes perfect sense that Grindr would launch an app for people of all sexual orientations. But Blendr, as the new app is called, is decidedly de-sexualized, focusing on connecting people who share platonic interests.

“We are going beyond dating,’’ Joel Simkhai, the company’s founder and CEO, told me recently. “The real goal here is to help you make new friends.’’

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Simkhai believes social media websites like Facebook and Twitter have made the world less friendly, because they link users to people they already know. Blendr is different, Simkhai argues, because it facilitates new relationships between people who live, work, or just happen to be near each other. Simkhai is attempting to pull as many people onto Blendr by wiping it clean of Grindr’s sexual overtones.

So far, that decision has resulted in near-unanimous pans from social media critics. “The new Grindr for straight people will never work,’’ declared Gawker. Salon described the app as “not exactly the tool for horny heteros that it was built up to be.’’ A writer at the Atlantic predicted that “people are never going to use friendship-finding apps,’’ mostly “because they’re boring.’’

The critiques share a similar logic: Grindr works because it’s all about sex, or the possibility of it; Blendr won’t, because it isn’t. In other words, a gay man’s urge to hook up with the set of bulging biceps next to him on the bus is infinitely stronger than a straight woman’s urge to discover if her elderly neighbor could be the newest member of her book club.

Put it that way and Blendr’s critics have a point.

Of course, Simkhai disagrees. He believes his apps make all social connections easier, especially in today’s less social world. Our need to forge new, real-world friendships is “primal,’’ he believes.

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“I know that it’s not just gay guys who are looking to meet new people,’’ Simkhai told me during a recent telephone conversation. “Gay, straight, lesbian, 20-year-olds, 80-year-olds, we all want to meet people who are like us. It’s a universal issue.’’

Blendr, as the new app is called, is decidedly de-sexualized.

I’d side with the Blendr skeptics if it weren’t for my own experience with Grindr. My story suggests Simkhai may be onto something.

I logged onto Grindr during my first trip to Provincetown, after driving there with only a change of clothes and my iPhone. I arrived late on a Friday evening, disoriented and alone. I didn’t know the first place to go, or the first person to talk to.

But on Grindr, introductions came easy. One guy offered to show me around. He and I ended up having a great time, finishing a night of mingling and dancing by scarfing down a slice of pizza among a sea of tipsy, sweaty, and happy people.

We went on to share a memorable weekend together - and we’ve spent every weekend since by each other’s side. For me, Grindr defied its sleazy reputation, turning out to be less of a “hook-up app’’ and more of a “share-your-new-life-together app.’’ It helped me find what I was actually looking for: a stable, long-term relationship.

And, really, it doesn’t get more primal than that.

Rob Anderson is a frequent contributor to the Globe’s opinion pages.