Interviews: The Fathr of Grindr, Joel Simkhai
Though he may come off modestly in the below interview, 33 year-old Joel Simkhai is responsible for the biggest change in gay hookups since the hanky code. His iPhone application Grindr functions as a sort of real-life gaydar, where a user can see a list of gay men in his area, how far away they are (to the foot!) and what they look like. Couple that with a chat function and you have a sort of gay sci-fi future where men can plug in anywhere and at any time to see if their next date, mate, or cum-drenched illicit gang bang is just around the literal corner.
Joel was nice enough to give me some time on the phone with him. Check out his opinions on sex, friendship, lesbian Grindr and much more in the paragraphs below.
Zack Rosen: What was the process for making this? Basically, I wanna know how Grindr came to be.
Joel Simkhai: Five years ago I started getting frustrated with all the other dating websites and with the idea of “Why is location not a higher priority?” You can search based on zip code, but what about the guy whose in my building or across the street? Then Google maps came along and I thought I should put together a mashup of Google maps and dating. Then the iPhone came around, the first generation was two or three years ago, and that was fine, but the second generation was when they added applications you could download from the App Store. Three major things happened — one was GPS, another was the app store, the last one was iPhone SDK which was the software language to write these aps in an easy way. So these three events occurred and then it was obvious that we gotta do [Grindr.] And now we can do it.
With our interface I was looking at my photo album and thought wouldn’t it be great if this were pictures of guys around me. We really focus on photos. I think as humans, especially as men, we respond to what we see. It’s one of the most important things, what does the other guy look like? Then you take it from there. Profile, then chat. It replicates the natural experience. The first thing you do is you see them. You don’t know what they do, you don’t know much about them, but you see them. That’s what we try to replicate. That’s the genesis.
ZR: What kind of feedback have you gotten?
JS: We get tons of feedback, which we love. and generally speaking it’s been great. We hear a lot that people just love the service, they appreciate it. They appreciate the simplistic nature of it, the simplistic approach. Time and time again, I meet someone and they say “I met my boyfriend, my ex, some buddies to hang out with. I’ve met people when I was traveling.”
ZR: Do you think people predominantly use this for dating and friendship, or for sex?
We purposefully see Grindr as a technology provider, and not a dating service or a hookup service. We don’t have many preconceived notions of what people should use the tools for. We use some monitoring of photos and profile texts, the public stuff, but we try to stay out of letting people know how to use the app. People use it for many different reasons, like ‘I use it to find out where my friends are, are they nearby?” We don’t prescribe how its used, we put some guidelines on how it can’t be used, but other than that…
ZR: What’s off limits?
Grindr.com has the guidelines but overall it’s no nudity, that’s the main one, and no profanity. It’s similar to Facebook or any social network’s standard.
ZR: Are these your standards or Apple’s?
JS: Apple has very specific guidelines — no nudity, no profanity. Those are their guidelines which we abide by. To remain in the app store we have to stick to certain guidelines.
ZR: I have a friend who got a warning for using a naked Greek statue as his photo…
JS: There’s the obvious, then there are gray lines. I’d have to see the statue. It’s really, really tough to figure out, what we think is that if its sexually suggestive its not appropriate. it can be sexy, but i have a problem with the overly sexually suggestive. these Greek statues, and I thought about them its just well, what are you trying do.
ZR: To shift gears a little, I think I can say you’ve changed gay culture for good in allowing gay men to sniff each other out literally anywhere. How does it feel to create seismic shift in way men meet each other?
JS: It’s amazing. I hate to sleep. I can’t get enough of it. I love what we’ve done, I love what we’re planning on doing. We’ve only begun. We have achieved a critical mass at this point, we’re verging on 500,000 users. 53 percent in the US and our second biggest market is the UK. To achieve that has been great, but now we can do more interesting things and continue to change how we see what’s around us.
ZR: But with the advent of Grindr there is actually nowhere that gay men can’t look for dick. How does that change the way we live our lives?
JS: I think… I guess… Repeat the question?
ZR: You had to go home too look at Manhunt. You can Grindr at the Dentist’s office or on the bus. There is nowhere that gay men can’t look for dick.
JS: I don’t agree with the question. I think it’s that hunt for connection, it’s that need to communicate. Part of it may be sex, but more important it’s that need to be connected. There are people who look at their cell phones just to look at it, they’re constantly texting. We’re helping guys feel connected, and get connected into their community and whats around them. That’s how I see the usage. If you’re alone Grindr helps you be no longer alone. It’s this loneliness that we help address. You’re no longer alone on the bus, you’re no longer alone. You’re with your Grindr peers. That’s where we help. I think that’s a great service. There are risks, like not living the moment and getting distracted from your surroundings because you’re so involved with your phone. That’s part of this mobile technology. You no longer have to be alone. That’s what I think.
ZR: Is this endemic to gay men, or would it work the same with with straight people? What about gay men makes this more feasible?
JS: We’re working on a straight version. Meeting more people is not unique. But there are several things unique to the gay population. The embracement of technology, of social networking. We were the first on Friendster, in AOL chatrooms. We’re the trailblazers, we pave the way for the larger population.
ZR: Do you think straight people will use this for sex the way that the homos do?
JS: I don’t know, I don’t get too caught up on this issue of sex. I just don’t. In a sense it doesn’t matter to me because I’m just a technology provider. [I help you] to meet new people. What you do, as long as it’s safe, that’s all I’m concerned about. That’s where it ends. I don’t think that sex is unique to gay men. It’s the basis of humanity. Go to Craigslist and look at the straight personals and the gay personals. They’re not that different. There’s Adult Friend Finder. That’s a straight business and they are a huge, huge company with sex being a basis. As much as gay men would love to have the exclusive on causal sex, we don’t. It’s everywhere. If we do approach the straight market it will be a very similar tool. There would be very little difference. At the end of the day we’re all just humans. There might be some differences based on gender, the concerns of women, but I don’t think the concerns of straight and gay men are different.
ZR: I agree.
JS: Men are men and woman are women. Gay or straight it’s kind of the same.
ZR: Do you think a lesbian Grindr would fly?
JS: I’m on the fence. At the end of the day think the answer is yes. They have the same issues and the same concerns that all of us do. We may do it. We have some demand, but not a tremendous amount of demand for it.
ZR: How would you feel if Grindr takes over the world?
JS: I don’t know what that means. Without a doubt our goal is for gay men, for all gay men, to use Grindr. We’re working on Grindr for different platforms like the Blackberry. At the end of the day, we don’t really have an agenda. Our goal is facilitate communication, that’s our main goal. We’d love to help guys around the world communicate better and meet new people. Figure out what’s in their surroundings in a better way. I’m really excited about that. I think its a benefit to people. I’m excited whenever someone new joins. TNG
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