Downtime

Back on the Prowl With Sniffies

An upstart gay cruising site wants to help guys “reconnect” this hot vax summer.

A promotional image for Sniffies with blurred out images of people and symbols in the background.
Sniffies

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

While it’s hard to say whether the post–COVID vaccine period will bring on a surge of hedonism like the storied decade that followed the 1918 pandemic, a quick scan of the maskless, largely naked boys of New York’s Jacob Riis Beach on a recent weekend suggests that, at least for the local queer crowd, the ’20s are entering a full roar, baby. And as bottoms, tops, and N95s hit the floor this Pride month, a new hookup website (that’s website, not app) has poised itself to strut past the more familiar Grindrs and Scruffs on our phones and capitalize on all the horned-up, post-quarantine energy.

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Sniffies is an upstart gay hookup site (NSFW!) that’s seeking to harken back to the old days of cruising, giving users a freak-forward user interface that shreds the decency mandates of the app stores and allows users to instantly locate the nearest dick or ass floating (literally, as photo icons) around in their neighborhoods on a live updated GPS map. The approach cuts out the tedious texting and etiquette now so common on the traditional apps and in some ways calls back to the experience of the bathhouse—only in this case, the bathhouse is a five-mile radius of city blocks.

The experience of logging on for the first time to find yourself immersed in a sea of genitals is both thrilling and overwhelming. Sniffies encourages users to get out of the house and explore what’s around them, mapping out a network of cruising hot spots from public restrooms and wooded enclaves to porn theaters and glory holes. Users are only visible when actively connected to the site, and the UI leans into this ephemerality by regularly purging chats and encounter histories. Where a Grindr hookup might be months in the making, if someone is currently logged on to Sniffies, you have a pretty good idea they’re serious about meeting up then and there, wherever that may be.

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When I first stumbled across Sniffies in the midst of quarantine-induced thirst, it struck me how much I appreciated the simple joy of seeing the real-life bodies of my neighbors, albeit usually from the waist down. In the age of working from home, Sniffies is the ideal outlet to find no-strings-attached, casual hookups or lunch break sexual experimentation. My first hookup over the site came a couple of months ago, shortly after leaving the gym on a Wednesday afternoon. Feeling too worn out to bike home right away, I loaded up the map and started up a conversation with an appealing torso halfway to my apartment who invited me over in between work calls for some post-workout “recovery.”

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Information about Sniffies’ origins is hard to come by. The site has existed in some form or another since 2018, but only in the past year—especially since the loosening of pandemic restrictions—has it truly seemed to materialize. To learn more, I spoke to Sniffies’ chief marketing officer Eli Martin. I asked Martin to explain the app’s funny name, its place in the zeitgeist, and what it may have to say about the future of hooking up.

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Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rhodes Murphy: Can you tell me just a little bit about Sniffies’ origins? Where did the idea come from?

Eli Martin: The name Sniffies originally came from an earlier site that was built for trading underwear.

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Oh my God, amazing. I’ve been so curious about the name. It’s so weird.

Yeah, that’s what that was originally. We kept the domain, because it’s obviously a very unique name. We’re working with a trademark agency now, and they’re like, “The coolest thing about you guys is this is supereasy to trademark because your name is so unique.” But now, “Sniffies,” the name, what it refers to is more of sniffing out what’s around you, sniffing out the fun, more of that feeling of cruising. It doesn’t necessarily mean for our users they have to be into …

Into smelling.

Sniffing underwear or socks, which, sure, a lot of our users are. I definitely am.

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Anyway, it just gave the site a fun name, and we actually love the fact that everyone has their own take on it. In the beginning, it started in Seattle. And the original ways we were advertising was on Craigslist. I don’t know if you’re superfamiliar with Seattle, but it’s kind of this kinky place. There’s a lot of gay guys there who are willing to try new things, and there definitely is a cruising scene there.

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Well, yeah, there’s so much forest to …

Oh, exactly. You’ve got trees all around; you’ve got tons of natural places to go. And so, what we found in the beginning was just this stickiness. Guys would come on the map, and then they would come back every day to check it. And the cool thing about that, too, is we’re not even an app. It’s a website, so you have to physically type it in. Now you can save it to your phone, but originally you’re just going to this website, checking it out, and I think just this feeling of “back to the old days of cruising” and allowing guys to explore in this real-life way, seeing where people are on a map, is just so much more fun than looking at a grid of guys.

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What do you think Sniffies is providing people that is different from other popular dating or hookup apps?

I think the biggest difference right now is Grindr and these other apps have so many different uses. Grindr’s really become like a Facebook. It’s like you can go on there and you can find anything. You can find a boyfriend; you can maybe sell a car. Who knows, find your best friend. But Sniffies is superspecific. You’re going on there to find guys, have these intimate experiences, and I think leaning into that was what was so smart for us. … We don’t disguise ourselves as a dating app. It’s very sex forward.

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I’ve been describing it as “freak forward.”

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I love that. Very fun. And I think all of us have a little freak in us, right? But I don’t think it’s limited to who you’d consider a freak. The biggest difference is that you don’t have to download this app. It’s something you can hop on and use whenever. That has opened a whole new way for guys who are maybe on the [sexuality] spectrum and experimenting to be able to experience something with another guy and not feel like they are downloading this app and committing to something. We found even talking to people who have worked at Grindr and stuff like that, one of their biggest use cases is people that download Grindr and then delete it. And then the next day, they download it again because obviously they’re horny again. And then they get on the app and have to make a new profile. So we’ve totally taken that step away for users that want to use it in more of this whenever they’re feeling it kind of situation.

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Was there any kind of direct source of inspiration? My editor said it reminded him of Pokémon Go.

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Pokémon Go did, I think, come up. And I think there were even ideas in the very beginning of gamifying the site, though we decided it was the wrong way to go for us. I will say, staring at a grid when no one’s around, it’s like, at least if you’re staring at Sniffies and not finding someone, you get to have this fun experience looking at a lot of dicks and butts around a map.

Like, “Oh, all these people are around me. That’s great,” or “Oh, I didn’t know there was a glory hole around the corner from my house.”

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I mean, come on, what’s more interesting than that? Exactly.

Right. It feels much more like you’re prioritizing the real world, visceral interactions between users over creating drawn-out virtual ones.

Absolutely. I think that our site is creating a way where guys feel completely open about asking for what they want and then getting it in a short amount of time. And I think there’s this excitement for cruising, which used to be and still is somewhat taboo. We’re also offering a new way to experiment and get off at a time when they’ve just left a stage of their life during the pandemic where we’ve been completely pent up, scared, and maybe only around one person or a small group. This is the summer of reconnecting, I would say, with the masses. Not just your boyfriend or whatever, but we’re wanting to get out there. So these guys that want to just go out and get off.

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Would you say that capturing the old school experience of cruising is the main goal of the site?

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The main inspiration was those moments that people have when they wish that they had done something or that they actually had the balls to talk to someone in a situation where you see someone cruising that’s in person, that’s 5 feet away from you, but you don’t actually do anything about it. We realized we have all these other apps for meeting people, but none of them feel instantaneous. Sniffies creates a place where you might see someone and you could look on the site and realize that’s the same person next to you. Or if you’re looking at the site in, say, a park or a public place, that you can see that these guys are around you. People don’t necessarily always want to swap a lot of pics and a lot of conversation. I’ve had plenty of times where I’ve spoken to guys for months and never met up with them. That almost never happens on Sniffies. If I don’t end up meeting up with them pretty immediately, it doesn’t really happen.

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