Gay and LGBTQ Apps
A brief history of gay online dating apps
Since the earliest days of the internet, gay dating and social networking have made up a significant portion of all web traffic. Younger LGBT people may have never spent a day as an adult without the use of apps like Grindr and Scruff to help them connect with similarly oriented people. But not everyone realizes exactly how long the arc of gay app development has been nor how integral a part gay dating has played in the development of the internet as we know it.
The gay apps that ruled before apps were
Today, the worldwide dating market has become centered around dating apps to an extent that is completely unprecedented. And in the world of gay dating and hookups, things are no different. But it is worth remembering that the term app wasn’t even widely used until the advent of the smartphone. The current usage of the word simply means a web-based application that is primarily aimed at mobile users.
The fact is that, while today’s gay mobile apps may be a little sleeker and more user friendly than their forebears, the basic functionality is really no different than a number of pre-smartphone websites that ruled the internet, long before the first rightward swipe.
The first gay apps and the development of the modern internet
Long before the appearance of 3G networks, high-speed internet and even modern internet service providers, the internet consisted of small user groups and bulletin board services. These were often run by hobbyists or dedicated amateurs. The connection speeds were atrocious, as slow as 300bps in the early days. For comparison, this speed is not much faster than physically typing out a string of text on a teletype machine, a technology that dates to the 1850s.
Bulletin board services, which were accessed through early generation dial-up modems, existed throughout many cities during the 1980s. And like modern chat rooms, these services dealt with a wide variety of subjects. One of the most prominent ways that these services were used was to host chat rooms for the gay community.
Because gay people often faced difficulty in connecting with one another, being forced to go to designated locations and often facing overt homophobia, gay-bashing and police harassment, the internet proved to be an ideal means of meeting and conversing with their gay peers. In large cities like New York and San Francisco, this ability to safely connect with others of similar orientation proved so effective that it eventually came to account for a large percentage of total internet traffic. It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that gay dating was a major driver of the early internet. And as we’ll see, gay dating chatrooms and websites, which would go on to pioneer most of the favorite features of modern apps, continued to be a hugely outsized driver of internet demand, right through the end of the 1990s.
CompuServe and “GayOL”
The first gay bulletin board services opened up a whole new universe of possibilities, including real-time erotic chat, picture sharing and setting up real-world dates. But the early services were mostly for hardcore computer nerds, requiring a good deal of technical skill to use even at the most basic level.
With the advent of CompuServe, one of the first large-scale, modern internet service providers, the online world was opened to a vastly wider audience. But the importance of gay-oriented web traffic did not decline. Rather, it continued to rapidly expand in proportion with the ever-widening user base of the now increasingly popular World Wide Web.
CompuServe’s gay chat rooms introduced a number of novel features that are now widespread, like the ability to post GIF images. But it was the emergence of AOL as the leading internet service provider of the 1990s that would really signal the beginning of mainstreaming gay internet culture within the gay community.
So prevalent were gay-themed chatrooms on AOL that the service eventually earned the moniker “GayOL”. In an era where dial-up was still king, AOL helped to pioneer the fast transfer of pictures and even some early online video formats. Still, despite its reputation as being a gay-friendly venue where alternative-lifestyle activity accounted for as much as a third of its traffic, AOL remained far from being a genuine gay dating site.
Gay.com, Adult Friend Finder and the first true gay hookup apps
Towards the end of the 1990s, the first true online gay dating sites started to appear. One of the major ones was Gay.com. This was a one-stop location for gay news, chatting and community. Gay.com also pioneered a number of online dating features, including user-created profiles that supported pictures and detailed information.
But things really started to heat up with the advent of Adult Friend Finder in 1996. Adult Friend Finder pioneered what we all recognize today as many standard gay-dating-site features, including the ability to add friends, upload extensive picture libraries and chat in real time with other members. Other groundbreaking features included the introduction of private messages, commenting on pictures and auto-generated recommendations that were based on early geolocation software.
Adult Friend Finder was also one of the first app-like gay dating sites to extensively make use of skins, which are sites that are superficially different than the main site but that use the same backend, similar user interface and that often have segregated user bases. A few famous and heavily trafficked Adult Friend Finder skins that have long been geared towards gay users are Men Nation, BDSM.com and Alt.com.
Of particular importance is the fact that, by the mid-2000s, Adult Friend Finder-based sites had all of the key functionality of modern gay dating apps. It is, therefore, reasonable to state that modern dating apps like Scruff, Jack’d and Grindr owe a great deal to the websites that preceded them. In fact, older gay dating websites can properly be viewed as early versions of modern dating apps, serving as a critical development stage that allowed for the efficiency and ease of use of today’s uber-popular gay dating apps.
High-speed internet and video chatting
Another critical advancement in gay online dating was a direct consequence of the widespread adoption of broadband internet in the early 2000s. For the first time, this enabled the efficient uploading and livestreaming of high-quality video, which quickly started being incorporated into existing dating sites like Men Nation and Manhunt.
But another application that proved wildly popular within the gay community, especially among men, was the advent of chat-roulette-style sites. These sites allowed for geolocated chatting with random partners. Many chat-roulette sites were targeted specifically at gay markets, allowing LGBT people instant face-to-face access with others of like mind. Through high-quality video livestreaming and large viewing windows, many of these sites allowed for virtual sexual experiences that, for the first time ever, served as a compelling substitute for in-person hookups.
The real thing is still king
But no matter how high-quality the video feed or stimulating the online conversation, gay people still long for the thrill and fulfillment that only real-life connections and in-the-flesh hookups can bring. Today, that is largely accomplished through modern smartphone-based apps like Grindr, Jack’d and Scruff.
In addition to their huge user bases, these modern apps allow highly accurate geotargeting, allowing users to concentrate only on those in their immediate area. The advent of ultra-high-quality in-phone cameras has also meant that people using these apps can get extremely accurate previews of who they are meeting and what they are getting. In short, modern cellphone-based dating apps have made the gay sexual marketplace as efficient as Nasdaq.
But in addition to the development of 3G and newer networks, which allow for true mobile broadband capability, these apps owe a debt of deep gratitude to their gay-dating predecessors. From local gay bulletin board services in the 1980s to the sophisticated dating sites of the late 2000s, the gay dating platforms that were early apps in everything but name pioneered the features seen in every app today while showing what was truly possible in gay online dating. In addition to playing a surprisingly crucial role in the development of the early internet, gay online dating continues to be a primary means through which people of alternative sexual orientations fulfill their fantasies and desires.