Grindr’s Cruel Optimism

If hookup apps never deliver the things we want, why do we keep coming back?

A man looks down at his phone in his hand with his other hand on his forehead.
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This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

I’m a single gay man and have been for most of the 15 or so years of my post-closet life. I’m also a chronic gay dating app user. More than chronic, in fact; I’m almost never not online. Or at least that was the case until the coronavirus pandemic brought the possibility of “meeting up” to a sudden halt.

Like many other gay men, I’ve deleted Grindr more times than I can count, only to reinstall it again a few days, if not hours, later. But when COVID-19 hit in mid-March, I deleted the app and didn’t reinstall it until sometime in mid-May. It was the longest I had ever been disconnected from a grid of other gay men since I started using dating apps almost a decade ago.

In retrospect, my decision to disconnect brought me peace: I was no longer struggling to balance multiple sexually charged conversations and endless requests for “more pics” with my daily routine, and I was no longer perpetually trying to slot hookups or dates into my already crammed schedule. But even though I had cut myself off from the all-consuming “pic?-looking?-hookup-post-hookup-‘I’m too busy this week but maybe next?’ ” cycle, I wasn’t totally off in the wilderness. I maintained my contact to the outside gay world through other avenues, like Reddit—and by extension Twitter and Instagram.

As public health experts and politicians began voicing cautious optimism about things potentially returning back to something like normal in the near future, a wave of optimistic memes and GIFs flooded my screen, visualizing the nonstop orgy gay men were, at least allegedly, prepping themselves for. And when I reinstalled the app, the very same wave of optimism washed over me, too. I returned to my menagerie of local and international contacts—“How are you? How’s quarantine treating you? Ugh, I’m so horny too!—and I even started e-meeting new people through FaceTime for virtual coffee dates and for cocktail hour.

A crisis is also an opportunity to do something differently, to correct a past error or improve something that wasn’t working before. I determined I was going to use physical distancing strategically to my advantage. I wasn’t going to rush to hook up with someone right away, and I wasn’t going to spoil my interest immediately by exchanging pictures. No, no. Not this time. This time I was going to use technology to date like how I did before technology completely altered dating.

How naïve: It took less than a month for me to slide back into my rutted cycle, only this time without the benefit of physical relief, since I was still respecting physical distancing protocols and all.

Why did I go back to Grindr? Did I honestly expect things to be different? After all, in my capacity as an academic researcher, I had published a scholarly paper that likened gay dating apps to gamified microporn. I should have known better than to think I could prevail over a set of algorithms designed to hook me into a cycle of endless dissatisfaction.

Throughout the COVID crisis period, an idea I had only briefly touched upon in my paper continuously ran through my mind—an idea that only gained emotional traction as I came to realize I had fallen effortlessly back into old habits I so dearly wanted to break.

GMSNAs [gay male social networking applications] have to make you feel optimistic even if you also feel more pessimistic every time you log on, in many ways characterizing what Lauren Berlant has termed cruel optimism: “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.”

It’s an uncanny feeling when your own words unexpectedly offer insight into your own experiences. And upon reflection, there was something about Berlant’s idea of cruel optimism that resonated with me more deeply when I returned to Grindr after my absence.

Debuting in the midst of the Great Recession and the Occupy Wall Street movement, Cruel Optimism was a lyrical dissection of how our attachment to the narrative of the “American Dream” was not only toxic but spiritually, psychologically, and even economically malignant and deleterious. Berlant’s book contributed to a cycle of thought within queer theory that took aim at the way optimism acts as a pillar that bolsters late capitalism, despite delivering diminished returns to the very people whose optimism about that system sustains it.

For Berlant, optimism becomes harmful when the thing you find yourself attached to convinces you that without that thing you won’t be able to achieve anything, or at least anything that presumably requires that thing you’re attached to. Within Berlant’s study of our devotion to an economic system that no longer delivers on its promise of a better life is a profound yet simple question about the nature of human desire: Why can’t we let go? Why can’t we let go of the things that, deep down, we know harm us?

The overlaps between Berlant’s critique of consumer capitalism and Grindr are numerous. After all, Grindr is a for-profit business whose model relies on an active, if not ever-expanding, user base. And as I reflect on my attachment to Grindr, I’m reminded of the old adage, “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.”

And so I ask: Why can’t I let go of Grindr? Why do I remain optimistic about apps like it when the return on my time and emotional investments is diminished with each reinstall and reopening of the app? Why do I struggle to imagine a gay life, let alone a better gay life, without Grindr? Why do I cling to an app that has been viewed by many in the community as an obstacle to self and collective flourishing?

“When we talk about an object of desire,” writes Berlant, “we are really talking about a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us.” What, then, does Grindr, my object of desire, promise me? Or, more accurately, what promises do I make myself believe Grindr promises me? What cluster of promises do I embed in the app that I then want it to make possible for me?

Connectivity? Happiness? Satiation? Salvation? Marriage? A boyfriend? An open relationship? Temporarily relief from my carnal cravings? Distraction? Titillation? Heteronormativity? Homonormativity? Queer emancipation? A friend? An adventure? A hand to hold while I walk down the street? A body to cling to as I fall asleep?

Despite living in this moment where the very idea of connection can feel toxic, I still want to meet someone to call my own. But why didn’t I manage to achieve this before COVID-19 put up all these additional barriers for me to circumvent—both physical and mental? And if I really wanted to meet one other person to call my own, then why did I so easily slide back into my comfortable routine of disjointed chats and pic exchanges? Moreover, how do you even date in the midst of a pandemic or ethically satisfy your carnal needs? Am I even legally allowed to touch a stranger anymore?

The optimism I felt earlier has faded. And as I sit alone in isolation, my thumb tapping on profile pictures, sending selfies, typing out “Hellos” and “How are yas,” I’m reminded of Christina’s confessional sendoff in Vicky Christina Barcelona: “I don’t know what I want, but I know what I don’t want.”

How I envy her.

Meeting people through apps like Grindr has been a mixed bag of eerily easy and frustratingly difficult, but I always clung to some vague feeling that Grindr was going to eventually reward me with that which I want. But as I see my blank gaze reflecting off my phone’s screen while I meander through Grindr’s interface, I can’t help but hear a soft echo growing inside my head: You don’t know what promises you want me to make possible for you.

Do I even know who I am anymore? Do you?

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