Here’s looking for you, kid

by Padraic Maroney

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday September 28, 2009

Nothing beats going out to the bar with the entourage on a Saturday night. Hitting the clubs, looking for Mr. Right (or possibly, just Mr. Right Now) is a long time honored tradition. But what happens after you go out for a couple months straight to the same spots, the bartenders begin to know your drink choice and the guy selection begins to look familiar?

Or what if you are like Stawn Kaufman, an event promoter, whose business takes him on the road from Columbus, Ohio to both New York and Chicago frequently. He has had a membership to at least ten different dating websites, though he says that now he mostly uses the memberships for networking when he's traveling.

"Being mobile is a very good thing," Kaufman said. "There are more fish in the sea. Everything is a click away."

Kaufman is part of a growing trend of guys who have left the club scene to meet guys and network. As the Internet continues to grow and acknowledge the needs of the gay community, more websites are popping up to help you find that perfect match. Nor are you restricted to your desktop or laptop -- there are plenty of options on your iPhone to keep you in tune with what hot guys are in the neighborhood.

Out of the bars, onto the Web

Researcher Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and the brains behind the dating quiz used to match people up on the website, has studied people's how we think and found that there are three core systems that everyone has when it comes to relationships. Those three systems are lust, romantic attraction and attachment. As she sees it, nothing has really changed in 500 years of evolution other than the way we meet people.

"It's the newest way to do the same old thing," said the researcher. "We're not really pairing up with high school sweetheart or college [partner]."

Back in "the dark ages" before there were computers or mobile technology, the options were pretty limited as to how guys would be able to meet each other. The problem with trying to find a date in the gay community isn't necessarily as easy as just walking up to the hot guy in the produce aisle.

"Our odds are about 20 percent," said Rajesh Lahoti, the CEO of dating website, in regards to the chances of finding someone during everyday travels compared to the heterosexual population.

Over the past few years it seems the Internet was developed so that guys could connect and meet each other in virtual situations. They could meet in chat rooms and then decide to meet in person if they chose.

"Before chat rooms any dating was hard, especially for a population that wasn't part of the mainstream," explained Dr. Lisa Paz, a licensed marriage/family therapist and a board-certified clinical sexologist. "If you don't come from an urban area you were stuck, essentially."

Chat rooms quickly began to be seen as a new way to meet people to hook up, but they also garnered a stigma of not really knowing who you are talking to - whether the person was being honest and providing pictures of themselves or if they were lying about some, possibly even all, of the information they were giving.

It's a stigma that has led many to be weary of trying to find love on the Internet, even when venturing outside of the realm of chat rooms into the more reputable dating websites. At least by going to a dating site, there was a better chance of the information being more accurate. But to the general public, online dating was seen at something only to be done as a last resort.

"There was a real stigma," Fisher said, adding that it has subsided in recent years. "At the moment, the consensus is I know friends who use it, but it's not for me."

It's a sentiment that Paz has seen first hand in her work. "You never hear a gasp. Ten or fifteen years ago it was a hush-hush underground thing," said Paz, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Miami.

For guys in the gay community dating websites weren't necessarily always accepting of those in LGBT communities, which led to sites like FindFred to be created to cater specifically to guys who were looking to meet each other. It's also part of a growing trend of gay dating sites and devices that are both gay owned and operated.

"Even the straight community has turned online. So clearly our community will have to," Lahoti said, noting the disadvantage that the gay community faces when trying to find a partner.

Regardless of stigma, probably the biggest positive change that Internet chat rooms and websites did is make people from rural areas realize they weren't so alone in the world. And for younger people coming to terms with their the Internet helps them find others going through the same or similar situations, especially if they live in a town where they may not know anyone who is out.

Dating online also allowed its users to connect with one another in a safe environment and filter out people based on pre-selected interests.

Going mobile

Even though FindFred is relatively new, Lahoti is looking to the second phase that will spin-off the popular site to allow users to access it through their mobile devices.

The move to the mobile devices is a trend that is growing more by the day. No longer are guys tied to a computer, having to look for their potential mates. With the launch of apps like GRINDR and BoyAhoy you are able to see who is around and connect with them, whether it is just for dinner, drinks or a nightcap back at your place.

The two applications, both of which are available for Apple's iPhone, have only been around for a year and have had huge growth in that time. Despite appearing to be similar in their purpose the two apps came into existence from two very different paths.

GRINDR creator Joel Simkhai had the problem of trying to meet people who were local to him.

"I have been thinking and trying to solve how do I facilitate that connection. How do I meet people who are around me?" Simkhai explains as to how he came up with concept, which he said took six to seven months to become a reality.

BoyAhoy, however, was spawned from the application Skout. The original application was started innocently for networking, but creator Christian Wiklund says that quickly found that 85% of their users were using it for dating and flirting. Within a few months the inclusive Skout decided to break out BoyAhoy as its own program where guys could meet and talk to each other in forum created just for them.

"We just couldn't get any traction. We changed the focus and the users came and we had server issues," Wiklund explained about the transition. "It's a very good problem to have."

One thing that the mobile applications allow users to do is connect to people in their immediate area. Whereas the most that some websites gives is an estimate of how close someone is in miles, the mobile devices are able to do so in smaller increments. GRINDR does it in feet and Simkhai wanted to keep it simple.

"When you see someone at the gym or supermarket, you don't know where they are from. It goes back to the initial visual experience," the GRINDR creator explains.

Wiklund agrees that meeting and interacting with people is the way to try to find love. "I don't believe algorithms can help find love. I believe it should be fun and lighthearted,"

Wiklund explains about the attractiveness of the applications. But he also doesn't downplay how much the potential mate's physical attributes play into meeting people through them. "It's pretty much how you meet someone with a bar. Looks are pretty important."

Because looks are so important all of the guy seeking applications make it easy to load a picture of themselves to be on display for everyone to say. The willingness of some many people to share not only their headshot, but also to use their real name (and more) on their profiles is something that initially surprised Simkhai.

"I initially thought, 'no way.' With the maturing of technology it has made people more comfortably with sharing their identity," said the GRINDR creator, who was expecting to get names like gymbunny69 much more frequently than actually occurred.

Both Wiklund and Simkhai say that their applications were meant to help bring connecting with each other to make dates and other social interaction in a more traditional manner. However the problem that has popped up with these mobile devices apps is that critics portrayed them as just a means to hook up for one-night stands. It's something that the developers say is an unfair characterization. As GRINDR creator Joel Simkhai says, they are merely making the application and aren't able to control how people use it - whether it was the intended usage or not.

"We are a tech company. We have a visions and goals but don't dictate how people use it [the application] as long as it's legal," Simkhai said about the criticism. He does add, "A lot of technology is first used by the adult industry or for sexual purposes."

Wiklund admits that there are some users who are looking for Mr. Right Now, but he compares the trend of mobile apps to that of going out to a bar. In the new relationship book MENu Dating: Taste-Test Your Way to the Main Course, author Tristan Coopersmith tries to change how the one night stand is perceived. In the book she tells women, the book's primarily audience, that there is nothing wrong with having a one night stand - but doesn't advocate partaking in one every night.

"[The book tries to] help reprogram the though of a one night stand," Coopersmith explains. "How can you know what you want if you haven't been around the block a few times?"

Room for everyone?

With both websites and now mobile devices is there enough room for everyone to still prosper? The answer seems to be a resounding yes.

While traditional sites don't seem to be seeing much of an impact from their mobile counterparts, the mobile applications are having huge growth. BoyAhoy has over 100,000 users while GRINDR has over 250,000 users -- 60,000 who use daily. Both applications are being used overseas.

Lahoti, who's website FindFred is going to be launching a mobile version in the near future, sees that everyone can play together just like how bars in a gayborhood are able to co-exist.

"Guys like to have five bars to bar hop. [So] four to five players can do well," Lahoti predicts.

But with increased competition, it also means that each of the companies is going to have to step up their game. GRINDR's Simkhai and FindFred's Lahoti both made a point to note that they are gay owned and operated. With GRINDR, the gay community was their top priority.

"We are proud to serve the community and focus on the gay community first," said Simkhai, who proudly says that GRINDR was not an offshoot of a straight counterpart or and afterthought. He does admit that while they will keep GRINDR "as a guys seeking guys community" a straight counterpart might get spun off in the future.

Both of the services have an option donation that members can make. GRINDR has the upgraded GRINDR X, which allows twice as many search results for $2.99 a month, while FindFred has a $5.00 premium membership. From that money, 10 percent of the money gets donated back to charities within the gay community.

"The web hasn't been held to the same standards as brick and mortar companies," Lahoti said about charity giving. "It's so nebulous so people don't ask."

Taking the Next Step

With the Internet so ingrained into our culture and lives, it's hard to separate the virtual and physical lives that we are leading.

"Our online life and physical life is 50/50. If you meet someone in a bar, the first thing you do is look at their Facebook page," Lahoti said.

It's because of this integration that more and more people are feeling comfortable meeting people online and making the move to meeting in person. But while it's easier to check the validity of someone's identity nowadays, it's still best to take precautions when first meeting someone.

"Nothing can happen to you online. If you have any brains you meet them in the afternoon in a public place and have a cup of coffee," explains Dr. Fisher. "It's safer than going into a bar drunk and going home with someone."

But before being able to take the step from talking to someone on your phone or computer, it's best to do a gut check on yourself to see if you are ready for a relationship.

"It's important to be honest with yourself," Coopersmith said. "If you're not ready, you're going to fuck it up anyway."

The continuing growth of technology will no doubt mean even more developments for the dating scene. But even as we go even more high tech, Fisher doesn't see there being an end to the bar scene.

"We will always have the waterhole -- the bar. We are an animal that meets face to face," Fisher said.