Digital Feelings and Analog Space

hollisg's picture

Participating in the geo-social media networks enabled by gay mobile applications like Grindr, Scruff, and Growlr can feel a lot like being at the nastiest, most brutal bar that ever existed. Network subscribers often ignore each other or use the “block” feature to break off contact. Sometimes, users will communicate with someone for a few minutes and then move on to someone else. Though sometimes users just disappear altogether. Interactions that take place on the apps can be tense and harsh as users trade messages with dismissive, imperious, or just plain offensive language. Interactions of this sort underscore the operation of a panoptic regime on the gay mobile media apps wherein users police each other even as they regulate themselves. The connections enabled by the apps are also policed by a set of in-group norms related to identity and desire, so forging interpersonal connections on the networks requires that users navigate a complicated regulatory matrix in disclosing personal information to one another.

As a result, interactions can be attended by rather profound feelings of doubt and insecurity. Enjoying a conversation with another user on the network can be undergirded by the trepidation of “does he like this as much as I do?” Interactions frequently precipitate thoughts like, “does he like me too?” The apps bind intimacy and regulation in ways that often create a sense of emotional precariousness among users. Seeking out interpersonal connection via these means requires the navigation of frequently clashing, harshly regulated value systems. When users run afoul of each other’s ideas about what constitutes proper comportment and/or suitable identifications, their connection may get severed: sometimes they block each other, though sometimes they just ignore each other and stop interacting. Users sometimes prefer these outcomes, of course; when they are not sexually, romantically, or social compatible, parting ways can be a relief for both of them. Nevertheless, such events can also be rather acutely painful, especially when the needs and wants of the pair diverge.

As assemblages of bodies and drives, devices and connections, the networks created by the apps provide users with opportunities for both embodied and disembodied exchange. Some users see trading messages and pictures as pleasures in and of themselves. Though other users see the interpersonal interactions that take shape on the networks as eventually leading to offline encounters. These connections also shift and morph over time; users do not always know what they want from particular interactions when they begin. Sometimes, chat between users evolves into the desire to meet in person. Other times, one user wants an in-face meeting and the other user does not. Such feelings unavoidably affect the kinds of interactions that occur between users.

The relationship between these digital technologies and the analog spaces in which they circulate is thus fraught, and can be characterized by both precariousness and flux. Love and romance are never easy propositions—especially when there is a veritable menu of possibilities at one’s fingertips. Gay mobile media applications are not for the faint of heart. The Grindr Guide is an eight-episode YouTube series chronicling some of the more common experiences that people have using the technology: the anxiety of picking a profile picture, planning an in-person meeting, and so on. Episode six is called “The Aftermath,” where a Grindr user, Joel, has an offline meeting with a person he began chatting with online. Joel wants the in-person meeting to result in an ongoing relationship, and the episode details his experience waiting for the other user to get back in touch with him. The episode is organized as a series of vignettes that unfold over several days wherein Joel obsessively checks Grindr, waiting for the other person to get back in touch with him. The episode becomes cringeworthy as it becomes clear that the other user does not share Joel’s romantic feelings.

I can’t help but feel sorry for Joel as that particular series of events is a common one on Grindr and other gay mobile media apps. The relationship between digital and analog space is often understood as being an agentic, happy one—as if users opt to move online interactions offline but do not necessarily “have to.” We typically understand such transitions as being a function of little more than one’s “choice.” But the tension between online and offline is an anxious one. In that move from digital to analog, users must navigate a variety of norms, in addition to the intentions and desires of other users. As a result, the relationship between digital technologies and analog space is as potentially disappointing as it is possibly painful.