Grindr as a Demographic Research Tool:
Residence, Lifestyle, and Self-identification in NYC
by Hsiang-Hsi Lu
Dating apps have become an integral aspect of urban social life this decade. In response to the lack of social interaction during the COVID-19 lockdown, the use of dating apps rose dramatically compared to the pre-pandemic era. In light of the spike of active users and a decrease in urban mobility and transportation, dating apps functioned as an alternative census, with up-to-date information on a particular population during the period.
Grindr, a GPS-based dating app with 3 million daily users, has been the most popular gay mobile app since its launch. In its free version, the interface shows up to 100 nearby profiles at once in a 3-column scrollable grid. By providing a live archive sorted by measurable distance, Grindr is considered one of the most publicized dating apps for its data exposure.
Driven by isolation like many others, I downloaded Grindr during the lockdown in March 2020. My impression of Grindr came from the thumbnail presentation of nearby users, with the distance of each profile appearing alongside their name and age. Upon tapping a headshot thumbnail, the profile expanded to include display name, age, and a brief “about me” introduction describing the user. During COVID, this space was often filled with “No mask, no sex” and a virus emoji. A list of statistical attributes from body type to sexual position, ethnicity,* relationship status, expectations, gender identity, and HIV status followed.
The lockdown did not last long in New York City. The Black Lives Matter movement brought protests and mass gatherings, and the city seemed to regain its life. The enduring isolation along with the rage toward social injustice inspired the Occupied City Hall protests and the Black Trans Lives Matters marches in Brooklyn. Not only were people out on the street and on Twitter, but dating apps also became a platform for sharing political opinions. As a foreigner who stuck in N.Y.C. and as an observer who witnessed the movement progressing, I sensed similar patterns repeating.
The idea for this project was borne out of checking Grindr during my regular commuting between Manhattan and Brooklyn for the George Floyd protests in the early summer of 2020. From the thumbnail display, I noticed that each neighborhood had its own spatially bounded ecology. There was a group of fit, nearly identical men in their early 30s aggregated in Williamsburg, gatekeeping their circle; mismatched individuals with varied lifestyles juxtaposed in West Harlem; young creatives with “they/them” pronouns and Telfar bags on racks huddled in Bushwick. Social divides on Grindr were not solely based on racial demographics, but included a hybrid of fashion trends, physical appearance, word choice, home interiors, and the neighborhood a user resided in. I began thinking about how dating app users might reflect or even reshape spatial identity in a condensed, diverse city like New York. Class Matters by The New York Times examines the subtleties of class in twenty-first-century America with innovative interviews and analysis. I figured it could be as powerful and insightful to document people through Grindr, from a marginalized, subgroup angle to project a bigger world, or at least to camera obscura a silhouette of current society. The immense geographic spread of Grindr’s user base made it efficient for reaching out to participants and collecting users’ data. I became a researcher and algorithm designed to witness lives operating by intangible social mechanisms. How do people live behind their online profiles?
Taking an investigative approach, I started inviting the users to participate by photographing their residences and collecting their profiles, based on a mass sampling method across the city. In order to approach an objective outcome and to reduce biases from my personal inclinations, I avoided any sexual relationships on Grindr during the project. With a neutral, friendly self-portrait and a brief project description on my profile, I sent the same message to thousands of people over a year, on a daily basis: “Can I photograph you and your place?”.
The city is a patchwork of communities and boundaries. Grindr digitally evades certain boundaries by allowing people to encounter those they might not otherwise have in real life. It allows one to see where others live and how they live. Granular clues about neighborhoods and types of users gradually emerged throughout the iterative experience of making initial contact with Grindr users for this project, followed by subsequent discoveries and discussions on a range of topics.
On the city scale, aggregating profiles by area indicates ongoing city development(s). The “gaytrification” theory explains the pattern of gays—typically from middle to upper-middle-class families—being among the first to move into a conventionally rough neighborhood and gentrify the area.[9,10] Greenwich Village, the birthplace of the modern American gay liberation movement and where the radical The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, is now a quiet sanctuary for successful professionals with many fit torsos and faceless photos on Grindr profiles. “Discreet” is a common word on Grindr and refers to closeted or otherwise private gay men who do not wish to disclose much about themselves. Often self-ascribed, “discreet” narrates today’s gay residents in Greenwich Village.
In comparison, Bushwick, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood offering cheap rent, attracts many young queers to settle, create, and throw parties. It has now become the center of a new counterculture. The ethos can be easily spotted both on the street and on Grindr. “Bushwick is too rough to gentrify,” I heard at a Japanese restaurant in Greenwich Village. But the same forces that changed now-luxe neighborhoods in Manhattan are unstoppable even in further-out regions of Brooklyn and Queens. NYC Construction Dashboard shows that new building permit activity is much higher in Bushwick from 2018 to 2020 than in Manhattan on average; also, many of my participants living in new buildings along Myrtle Avenue all indicate the Bushick placemaking is undergoing. The normalization of queer culture seems to lost the role of sheltering marginalized groups and has become a price boost for real-estate investment.
On a residential scale, different lifestyles can be perceived both on online profiles and in in-person encounters. A monolithic way of living often appears in single-race-dominated neighborhoods: the “gaymers” in Hell’s Kitchen with ubiquitous rainbow flags fluttering on balconies; the sophistication of the West Village with splendid decorations and art collections. Books, music instruments, frames, and wine are organically ornamented in Park Slope’s apartments. Contemporary and pop Asian culture is in vogue in Long Island City. Meanwhile, a transition or a contradiction of living standards in a neighborhood is also quite noticeable. Harlem, near Morningside Park, for example, nurtures generations of Black New Yorkers and a flock of white newcomers nowadays. Longtime residents feel the center of African culture as in danger of being replaced with a reinvented idea: “SoHa.” An elevator brought me to an Architectural Digest-type apartment, with a view of Columbia University over the hill. “Harlem is getting safer in recent years. You wouldn't be able to see two guys holding hands on the street 10 years ago; now they’re everywhere,” a participant told me. The next block stood a five-story walk-up with no direct sunlight, and the laundry piled in front of the entrance once I entered the apartment. “There’re so many white people nowadays,” a participant who was born and raised in Harlem complained. The reality is a dichotomy of two disparate living standards co-occupying the same area, often in mixed neighborhoods.
On a more personal level, Grindr profiles reflect sex preferences, political opinions, and self-identification below the surface. Predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods tend to have more users who uphold traditional norms of a penetrative, “top” masculinity. Concourse and Central Harlem, for example, are neighborhoods where the most users define themselves as “man” and “top” by relative proportion. Interestingly, Concourse also has the most faceless profiles: 60 percent of the neighborhood. (For more on extremification of masculine identity, see Payne’s (2016) “I Am a Man Too!” in Meaning-Making, Internalized Racism, and African American Identity, where he discusses how social deprivation and expectation in community-based neighborhoods lead to hyper-masculinity.) Grindr reflects this phenomenon. Additionally, half of the users identified themselves as “man or cis man” (49%) or declined to self-ID (46%), in spite of the recent expansion of gender identification options. On the other hand, Hell’s Kitchen (43%), Lower East Side (42%), West Village (41%), and Williamsburg (41%) are the top four for shirtless profiles at over 40 percent. West Village and Williamsburg are both high on faceless (49%) and shirtless (41%) profiles. In the sexual position category—“top,” “vers top,” “versatile,” “vers bottom,” and “bottom”—about 41 percent of users declined to show their position, which outweighs the most popular “versatile” option (17%).
In the 255 character limit* “About Me” bio, political commentary is a recurring theme on Grindr profiles and serves as an important magnet before any interactions. Black Lives Matter, comments on the 2020 presidential election, and Free Palestine hashtags appeared many times among participants.
The project aims to examine the complexity of Grindr, to experiment using the strength of technology, and to uncover the real lives behind online dating profiles. As a photographer and a user myself, I wanted to know the reasons and forces that bring people together on this platform. I am not a social science researcher from an accredited authority; this project would be considered methodologically imperfect from a clinical social research perspective. Also, my background as a Taiwanese photographer exists outside the arena of Western art tradition. Nonetheless, I believe that photography can holistically address the empirical gaps that arise from the decoupling of art from social science.
It would be a stretch to come to unequivocal conclusions about a given neighborhood based upon the data collected. This project seeks to look at the queer community as its members present to one another internally, not for outside perception and study. The complexity of queer life and New York City is still beyond my (and most people's) comprehension. The role of Grindr Profiles is more of a demonstration than a representation.
Dating apps mirror society. The existence of Grindr profiles evidences a dimensional urban landscape: a looking glass that reveals thumbnails on smartphone screens, the users behind them, the places where love happens, the neighborhoods where the profiles populate, altogether. The year-long observation documented the intricacies of human movement, lifestyles, and virtual representations in New York City’s Grindr population. How do people live behind their online profiles? This project offers an answer.
1. Collecting participants for Grindr profiles
The project started in July 2020, was postponed during the winter due to the surge of COVID-19, and ended in August 2021. The sample was a geographic convenience sample based on specifically chosen varying locations. There were several ways to collect participants. Simple random sampling was the first step to reach out to general individuals. The collection method turned to representative sampling if the initial result deviated too far from local demographics.* In some cases, references from previous participants were accepted if subjects were difficult to find (i.e., snowball sampling), especially if they lived in a private neighborhood or were locally less numerous minorities. The locations for sampling were parks, pharmacies, MTA stations, Link NYC kiosks, and other populous sites in public spaces.
195 Grindr users participated. Participants ranged from 19 to 75 years old, living, working, or studying in New York City for a minimum of two months. There were 85 participants from Manhattan, 77 from Brooklyn, 18 from Queens, 13 from the Bronx, and 2 from Staten Island. Races and ethnic groups included white, Black, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and others. Genders included man, cis man, trans woman, trans man, nonbinary, and queer. Most of them had public profiles with identifiable headshots.
The process began with messaging several users at once “Can I photograph you and your space?” on Grindr for participation. If a user expressed curiosity, I would further explain: “It’s my personal photo project about Grindr’s demographics. I photograph people’s living spaces and a blurry headshot of them.” After they agreed to participate, we would schedule a photoshoot at their living space—living room, bedroom, or studio, and I would ask permission to include their Grindr profile information. The photoshoot lasted between 15 to 30 minutes. The incentives were a cup of coffee, a free portrait session, or any equivalent favors. Participation was often voluntary without asking anything in exchange.
There were some unmeasurable factors that might have affected participation. First, despite New York being a metropolis, outlying and industrial areas with low population density still exist, making convenience sampling ineffective and inaccurate. Second, the socio-economic status might impact the willingness to participate; for example, education level, occupation, religion, or family structure all bear on attitudes toward the community and visibility therein. I do not have direct evidence to link the relations between socio-economic factors and participation, but my supposition comes from my lived experience and my ambient awareness of the community. Third, Grindr attracts certain people with common motives, rather than every queer individual; there were some levels of overrepresentation since many participants were more open-minded than the general public. Fourth, my public Grindr profile and my personal attractiveness could also affect participation. I do not know if my Asian smiling self-portrait would give me more or fewer participants in different scenarios.
2. Collecting users’ data from neighborhoods
Grindr statistics summarize users’ data in every 38 selected New York City neighborhoods. In order to get more users at home and online, data were collected from Monday to Friday, 8 pm to 10 pm, under the time of NYC travel restrictions from February 2021 to May 2021.
The goal of collecting Grindr statistics is to utilize Grindr as a demographic research tool as an experiment, to see what types of people aggregate in different neighborhoods. The data were not provided directly by Grindr but rather manually recorded since they are visible for every user.
To complete data collection, I used the "explore map" feature on the app to gather a maximum of 99 user profiles in each neighborhood. First, I would physically go to the center of a neighborhood (a cross-street) during the target time slot in order to get the maximum radius, which is the 99th user’s (furthest person) distance on the Grindr free version. Second, I would drop a map pin at the cross-street, at the same location I was standing, on the explore map, and then 99 users’ profiles would show up and stay the same unless refreshed; in other words, if I dropped a map pin at 8:30 pm, every profile would be exactly like the moment of 8:30 pm, no matter if they traveled somewhere else or went offline later on as long as I kept the app open. By doing so, it ensured I had time to type everything down on my computer without being interrupted.
The data I collected include the types of profile photo (clear, partial, or no face; clothed or shirtless), age, race,* gender, relationship status, looking for (right now, dates, friends, etc.), and HIV status. Not all available variables were collected, due to ill-defined concepts like “average, toned, or masculine” in body type.
Many thanks for the information, correction, and critique given by the following person: Madeline Carpentiere, Travis LaCouter, Max Levin, Juan Madrid, Nicolas Marquez, and Dani Sandler. A lot of great ideas came from editing and conversing with them.
Many friends helped and supported the project in different ways. Thanks to James Shi for technical support on my website. When I first explained the idea to him, he was surprised by the amount of work and told me it would take three engineers a month to produce. He helped me design the website structure and saved me from the struggle of starting from scratch. I wouldn’t know how to organize the data and handle coding without his guidance. Thanks to friends who let me stay at their apartments to collect participant data day and night and gave me suggestions of where in their neighborhoods to explore.
Thanks to Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library, many branches of the New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Public Library. I spent weeks at the libraries for their great locations, collecting participants and synthesizing my research at the final stage.
In particular, I am most grateful to my participants for their absolute kindness, trust, and openness. It is still, these days, a sensitive topic to talk about publicly. Many ideas and feedback came directly from my participants with their questions about the purpose and findings. In the beginning, I lacked a proper explanation and I assumed many participants thought I was a clueless student doing something for school; they still helped me along the way without asking for anything in return. The project would not have been possible without every participant’s help.
I acknowledge the final result might not always look pleasing to everyone, including my participants. It is crucial to stay honest with both myself and my participants. I avoided displaying too-specific data in order to keep participants anonymous and out of potential harm. Anonymity is the principle of the project; although some participants are more identifiable than others based on their circumstances.
This is my first project on a social theme at scale, and I anticipate that there will be incompetencies and errors that I haven’t noticed. I encourage anyone to provide feedback if something is mistaken and requires modification. And finally, thanks to viewers who have gone over my project. I hope it brings you new thoughts.
September 2021, New York
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8. The New York Times. (2005). Class Matters. Times Books.
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10. O'Sullivan, F. (2016, Jan 13). The 'gaytrification' effect: why gay neighbourhoods are being priced out. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/jan/13/end-of-gaytrification-cities-lgbt-communities-gentrification-gay-villages
11. Frizzell, N. ( 2013, June 28). Feature: How the Stonewall riots started the LGBT rights movement. Pink News UK.
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13. Department of Building. (2020). NYC Construction Dashboard. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/buildings/html/dob-development-report-2020.html
14. Jaque, A. (2017). Grindr archiurbanism. In Kolb, J. (Ed.), Log. 41 (p. 79). Anyone Corporation.
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16. James P. R., & Richard O. de V. (2017). “It Takes a Man to Put Me on the Bottom”: Gay Men’s Experiences of Masculinity and Anal Intercourse, In The Journal of Sex Research, Volume 55, Issue 8. (pp. 1033-1047). Routledge on behalf of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.
17. Payne, Y. A. (2016). “I am a man too!”: Masculinity, economic violence, and resilience in the streets of Black America. In Sullivan J. M. & Cross Jr. W. E. (Eds.), Meaning-making, internalized racism, and African American identity (pp. 189-205). State University of New York Press.
*Ethnicity is not a correct term based on Grindr’s classification. There are only “white, Black, Latino, Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American, Mixed, and other” on the list of options. Race is a proper term in this case, although it is more so a self-identification than scientific truth.
*The total number of characters in the ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) table is 256 (0 to 255), which explains why the app only allows users to type 255 characters in their bio.
*Based on 2020 Census Results for New York City on NYC Department of City Planning website, https://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/planning-level/nyc-population/2020-census.page##2020-census-results
*Race is a proper term instead of ethnicity, based on Grindr’s classification.
Author: Hsiang-Hsi Lu
Proofread, edit: Max Levin, Dani Sandler
Web design, data collection: Hsiang-Hsi Lu
Web development: Hsiang-Hsi Lu, James Shi
Web engine: Wix
Data visualization software: AnyChart
Grindr Profiles is a photo research project that explores queer urban life in 2020-2021 by looking at Grindr users in New York City, their standards of living, and their online self-identification. The project includes users’ profiles and the statistics from Grindr’s attribute-identification scheme. The profiles feature 195 participants between 19 and 75 years old from all five boroughs, and comprise a headshot of each participant (blurred out for privacy), a photo of their living space, proximate geolocation of their home, and their public profile information. The statistics reflect 38 New York City neighborhoods.
Copyright: © 2021 Hsiang-Hsi Lu. This is an open-source distributed under the terms of Creative Commons License, Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0), which allows reusers to distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes only, and only so long as attribution is given to the creator. If you remix, adapt or build upon the material, you must license the modified material under identical terms.