GPS – Gaydar Positioning Service: Mobile (and) Locative Technologies in Gay Male Digital Culture

This paper was recently presented at the Association of Internet Researchers Conference (IR.10) in Milwaukee. It is an extract from a chapter I am writing on gay men’s digital culture in the age of the mobile Internet and the full chapter will be published in my book ‘Gaydar Culture’ in 2010. Please feel free to get in touch if you are interested in this work and/or would like to learn more about the book. You are welome to quote or cite this work but PLEASE drop me an email at before doing so!

Sharif (Chicago O’Hare Oct 2009)

Today I want to talk a little bit about the research I am currently working on, which has grown out of research I’ve previously been involved in surrounding gay male digital culture. My current focus is on mobile ICTs and a set of communicative practices that are being invoked as gay men move around the spaces of their everyday lives.
Collectively I am calling this communication, Digital Cruising and I’ll begin my discussion today with a very very brief definition of what this means.
I’m defining digital cruising as a set of practices that take place between men via any one of a number of digital interfaces. These include GPS-enabled mobile phones, and PDAs with Wifi or 3G connectivity together with shorter-range technologies such as cell-phones with Bluetooth activiated. These interfaces are used by participants as they move through physical space, and it is to the issue of space that I’ll return in a moment. As to the purpose of digital cruising, although such communicative acts may result in sexual contact, this is by no means guaranteed or indeed always sought. In line with traditional understandings of cruising, we can think of such practices as signaling an acknowledgement of – perhaps an appreciation of – the queer other. However, beyond such acknowledgement, digital cruising may well lead to little else.
Nevertheless, cruising remains a powerful trope within gay male cultures, which often have complex relationships with issues of visibility and identification (Humphries, 1970; Healey, 1996; Tattelman, 1999). Cruising is an integral part of that relationship.

Digital cruising can thus be defined as the migration of traditional visual practices to digital platforms and the translation of gay men’s visual culture into new contexts. My definition also recognizes that cruising always remains a fully mobile, and physically located set of ‘looks’ or ‘gazes’.
Moving on from definitions to statements of intent, my chief concern today is with identifying how mobile digital technologies support the creation of gay or queer hybrid spaces through digital cruising. And in thinking through these ideas I take my lead from Larry Knopp (2004), who in 2004 wrote that,

We [queer people] are keenly aware of the hybrid nature of our existences, and of the highly contingent nature of both our power and the constraints on it. Hence our ambivalent relationships to place and identity, and our affection for placelessness and movement.  (129)

My use of the term ‘hybrid space’ refers to the work of Adriana de Souza e Silva and I use her 2006 article on this subject as my critical springboard. In doing so I hope to provide a better understanding of the relationship between Digital Cruising and conceptions of everyday space.
I should also point out here that in this paper I do not address the issue of ‘why’ – namely why digital cruising? What is its purpose? Answering this question is obviously important but requires more time than is available to me today. I am of course happy to discuss this later on though and I do here conclude this paper with one possible answer.
So, to the issue of space, and the focus of my paper today. Let me begin with an extended quotation taken from an interview with one of my research participants.
I’ve used Bluetooth. I’ve been cruised with Bluetooth actually. […] I was on the tube in Madrid […] and I’d got on at the far end [of the line] Some lad got on, he was really cute, he was South-American.
[…] Anyway then the train filled up a bit and my phone went and it was a Bluetooth message and it was a picture of him. So I kinda saw him through the people, and the train is getting busier and busier and busier as the train is heading in to the centre of Madrid and he was checking whether I had checked it and then he smiled at me to make sure I’d made the connection between [him and the message] but actually, he must have been broadcasting to the entire [carriage]… unless he picked my phone out?
Anyway, at each stop he sent a more and more graphic picture to me, made it very clear what he was interested in and what he wanted me to do to him, and then when I got off the train he got off the train and he called me by name, because of course my phone had my name on it. It was quite odd to have a stranger who’d gone from being a total random stranger, to having seen the intimate side of him, calling out my name. And then I went and had sex with him and it was really nice.

Now it transpired that this form of Bluejacking was something that this guy (let’s call him Ernesto) engaged in on a regular basis. The metro line chosen is important for two reasons. Firstly, it cuts through Chueca, the heart of Madrid’s gay district. Travelling Line 5 (that’s its name) provides Ernesto with the best opportunity to connect with men who might be interested in sex with him. Line 5 is, in other words, a ‘hot’ line for digital cruising.
Secondly, the choice of line is important because Ernesto uses it to commute between his home and work. As such Line 5 is not so much a choice of destination for Ernesto as a structuring device within his daily life – an unavoidable journey that he has to take as he shuttles between his shared accommodation in the suburbs and two monotonous jobs (as a kitchen porter and a waiter). Line 5 is thus characterised as both the quotidian and the erotic, offering a site of potential sexual adventure while transporting Ernesto between his low-paid, low-status jobs.
Through his digital cruising, and the sending of explicit photos & text, Ernesto performs Rechy’s sexual outlaw (1977) a figure that both responds to and rises out of the crushing (hetero)normativity of everyday life.

Mobile ICTs, harnessed within the daily commute, serve to construct new uses for, and new meanings of space and time (as identified by Caronia in 2005) and can extend the sense of private space during periods of travel (See Bull, 2007). Scholars such as Hampton, Livio & Sessions (2009) and Ito, Okabe & Anderson (2008), have identified the creation of private spaces and ‘bubbles’ of privacy through such communication technologies.
What I am interested in here though are the technologies and techno-practices that allow that strange, stagnant space of the commuter’s world to be penetrated, traversed and ‘queered’ in all senses of the word. While some commuters are listening to their music, and others arranging meetings over mobiles, a few may well be communicating with each other, sending short messages or photos, winking, flirting and forming loose and ephemeral networks via personal ICT devices. In doing so, these practices are creating new ‘layers’ of communicative space, and new ways of understanding the space of everyday life.
Adriana de Souza e Silva identifies and argues for a new category of space in her 2006 article for Space and Culture. She defines it as follows:

Hybrid spaces are mobile spaces, created by the constant movement of users who carry portable devices continuously connected to the Internet and to other users. (262)

Hybrid space thus recognizes the increasingly mobile nature of the Internet (and, I would add, other forms of digital communication) but offers a different understanding of such mobility to those encapsulated in terms such as ‘Augmented Reality’ ‘Mixed Realty’ or ‘Augmented Space’. Of chief concern is the fact that,

a hybrid space is not constructed by technology. It is built by the connection of mobility and communication and materialized by social networks developed simultaneously in physical and digital spaces. (265 – 66). Author’s emphasis.

Hybrid spaces envelop the material world, reorganizing it through mobile interfaces and the networks maintained through them. To quote De Souza once more,

Mobile technology users take the nomadic concept one step further, because not only their paths are mobile but also the nodes.  With the fixed Internet, and fixed landlines, computers and telephones were primarily connected to places. Conversely cell phones represent movable connection points accompanying their users’ movements in physical spaces. (267)

Unlike other forms of digital space, hybrid spaces cannot be constructed in advance. It is not something to ‘go to’ – the space is not fixed. Instead, hybrid spaces are fragile, maintained through precarious networks that come into being only to ‘melt’ away and be re-formed in different places, and through different ‘nodes’. Space is thus conceptualized by its potential to contain networks and connections between the nodes that flow into and through it – similar to commuters getting on and off a subway car.

The connections that I am interested in here often exist for a matter of minutes, sometimes even seconds. It is therefore not only physical space that determines the creation of hybrid space and the mobile network, it is also time – such as the time it takes for the subway to travel from stop-to-stop, or for a user to get distracted by work or other duties, or for the network to be interrupted by signal drop-outs.

And digital cruising is of course not confined to the limited range of Bluetooth. While some men appropriate short-range technologies, others are using commercial applications specifically developed for this purpose.

Examples of this would be the Grindr, Purpll and Boy Ahoy applications available through Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch series. Globally, these ‘gay social networking’ tools have attracted millions of users to date and harness the GPS and Internet capabilities of the hardware in order to find and display subscribers to the service.

These services draw on established modes of interaction within gay male digital culture (See Campbell, 2004; Mowlabocus, 2007 & forthcoming) but rely more closely on the physical spaces through which users move. As Boy Ahoy states in its advertising material ‘In a bar hanging out or just chilling at home? Just pick up your iPhone and see who’s around’.

Such networking tools rely not only on physical space, but also the ‘quality’ of that space – who is nearby at any one time, who is moving through that bar, or club – or train or service station. Indeed, it is the movement through physical space that provides the most enjoyment. As one blogger comments in relation to Purpll ‘it’s fun to just see who is on and gay around you’.

Time and again the subjects I interviewed were only interested in who was physically close-by, and who was passing by. In other words, many interviewees were drawn to such technologies because they allowed them to see who else nearby was gay or ‘into men’.

During one interview, ‘Daniel’ pulled out his iPhone and began ‘scanning’ the local area using Grindr. ‘Look!’ he said, pointing to one of the profiles listed,  ‘He’s 5 metres away! He could be in my flat!”

Daniel had already spoken about the lack of privacy that his apartment afforded him, and his astonishment that Grindr had located another gay man in such close proximity seemed to compound his feeling that his private space wasn’t really that private. It also seemed to unnerve him that Grindr was publicly displaying him to those so close-by. Of course on one level Daniel was aware of this. But on another level, Grindr was contributing to the publicizing of Daniel’s everyday life through the hybridizing of his everyday space.

Caroline Bassett recently asserted the need to recognise ‘how pockets of game space and game time contribute to the increasingly complex fabric of everyday life, particularly everyday life as it is lived in public’ (Bassett, in print). In that moment, Grindr revealed to Daniel not only the complexity but also the increasingly public and hybridized fabric of his own everyday life.

This publicizing becomes all the more poignant when we recognize that public space and public life is more often than not coded as heterosexual.

Ben Gove (2000) talks of the ‘sneering surveillance’ of an ‘overwhelmingly heterosexualised sphere of ‘public’ space’ (141 – 142) while Ken Hillis (2009) notes that,

With respect to gay/queer experiences of material public space, belief or desire that the Web might constitute not only mobility but also some form of actual space grows in tandem with the reality that it remains taboo, for example, to hold hands with one’s same-sex partner at the mall. (234)

The hybrid spaces of digital cruising bring together and hold in tension the belief and reality identified by Hillis in his recent book ‘Online A Lot of the Time’. Digital cruising can be seen as an attempt to address and to challenge the reality of public space, causing physical space to be subjected to acts of queer digitalization and re-coding – and allowing for new communicative spaces to form within the Everyday. Such acts of spatial (re)definition may be most powerfully felt by those who are regularly perceived as existing (to paraphrase Hillis) somewhere ‘over there’ rather than ever fully ‘here’ (234) ‘here’ being, the ‘real’ world of heteronomalised public life.

This assertion was confirmed in my research where every single interviewee identified digital ICTs as being invaluable when locating local, national and international gay spaces. When asked why such spaces were sought, respondents identified a feeling of ‘communality’ and of ‘comfort’ – of ‘being around one’s own people’ and of ‘coming home’ – suggesting that the world ‘outside’, continues to be one in which gay men experience a sense of ‘otherness’ and non-belonging. A sense identified by both Knopp and Hillis.
Of course no-one can live in the ‘Village’ for ever and outside of the established and ‘valid’ spaces of the gay scene, digital cruising can be seen to provide a similar sense of ‘like-mindedness’ and of ‘coming home’ within the contexts of everyday life and public space, to that found in ‘legitimate’ gay space.
Vincent Miller has written of the ‘connected presence’ that mobile ICTs and communicative practices such as microblogging and Facebooking engender (Miller, 2008: 394). And I would argue that it is this sense of ‘connected presence’ that is allowing gay men to cruise public space and momentarily connect with others in contexts that may otherwise be hostile to such acts of queer bonding. I shall leave my discussion there for now and thank you for listening.

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de Souza e Silva, A. (2006) ‘From Cyber to Hybrid: Mobile Technologies as Interfaces of Hybrid Spaces’ in Space and Culture. Vol. 9. No. 3. 261 – 278.
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Mowlabocus, S. (2007) ‘Gaydar: Gay Men and the Pornification of Everyday Life’ in Nikunen, K, Paasonen, S. & Saarenmaa, L. (eds.) Pornification and the Education of Desire. London, Berg.
Mowlabocus, S (forthcoming) ‘Look at Me! Images, Validation and Cultural Currency on Gaydar’ in Pullen, C. & Cooper, M. (eds.) LGBT Identity and New Online Media. New York, Routledge.
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Sheppard, M. (no date) Tactical Sound Garden. [Online] [accessed: 28th September 2009]
Tattelman, I. (1999) ‘Speaking to the Gay Bathhouse: Comunicating in Sexually Charged Spaces’ in Leap, W. (ed.) Public Sex, Gay Space. New York, Columbia University Press.


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