From Gaydar to Grindr
Grindr is the iPhone application that allows gay men to locate each other out on the prowl. We tested it in - where else? - gay Soho.
Ten years ago I found myself in a gay sauna in Bristol, surrounded by a group of men in towels who were all huddled around a computer and checking out other men's Gaydar profiles. I wrote at the time that I had seen the future of gay mankind, and to some extent I was right.
Gaydar has revolutionised the way gay men interact with one another. It's also had a massive impact on the bar and club scene. Gay men don't need to go out looking for sex anymore. They can just sit in front of their computers instead. The current ad campaign from Gaydar asks: 'Why go out when you can stay home and play?'
Now comes a piece of technology that encourages you to go out and play. It's like Gaydar, only it's mobile, and it even tells you how far you are from your fellow users (so no more internet lies about living in Clapham when really you're in deepest Balham!)
Grindr is a free iPhone application based on another app that was developed to help worried parents keep track of their children. But it's gay men who have put it on the map, thanks in no small part to Stephen Fry, who extolled its virtues on that famously gay-friendly TV programme 'Top Gear' last June. It's said that 20,000 people signed up in the three days that followed, which prompts the question of who watches 'Top Gear'. First launched in February 2009, Grindr now claims 500,000 users worldwide.
Together with my colleague Derek Adams,Time Out gadgets guru, I decided to put it to the test. Since I don't possess an iPhone, Derek acted as my technical adviser and honeytrap. We created a profile for 'Big Del', complete with vital statistics like height and weight (but no photograph - Del is a happily married man and we didn't want his wife getting the wrong idea).
Immediately we found men with user names like LoveHunter, JustCurious, Fun Boy One and Aussielad29 all within a short distance of our office on Tottenham Court Road. The nearest was less than 100 metres away. Still we resisted the charms of the user named Honk If You're Horny and took to the streets.
Our first stop was Soho Square, where the app was slow to respond, leaving us time to read some customer reviews. 'Lame', said one. 'Keeps crashing', said another. Our connection crashed twice. Maybe it was because we weren't in a wi-fi zone, or maybe it was the O2 network.
Still we persevered. We walked along to Ramillies Street and suddenly things perked up. Possibly it's because there are so many gyms in the area, including the gay gym and sauna, Sweatbox, but soon we discovered that our nearest candidate was 'no metres away', ie right on top of us. Another was six metres away. We scanned the street but couldn't see anyone fitting the description on the profile. Maybe they were on the nearest treadmill?
Next we headed down to Old Compton Street. If Grindr didn't come up trumps here, then clearly it wasn't as popular as people claimed. It did, and it is. Outside Costa Café we were swamped with profiles of fellow users, ranging from Luke23, to Dirty Boy, who appeared to be in his 40s (as on Gaydar, gay men on Grindr have a flexible definition of the word 'boy'). We counted 80 men in the vicinity and up for action, which isn't bad going for two o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon.
But if you really want to get the most out of Grindr, you have to wait until after dark. On Old Compton Street we ran into the author Christopher Fowler. 'Oh, my friend uses it all the time', he told us cheerfully. 'The best time to go on is at 4am.' So now you know.
For more info go to www.grindr.com