Aaron Bonette was around 15 or 16 years old when he first created an account in Guys4Men.com, a now-defunct gay-centric social networking site. At that time he was still based in Lucena City, some 152 kilometers south of Metro Manila, where he lived with his mother and a younger sister. “I was still unsure, perhaps even confused about my sexuality then,” Aaron recalled. “At that time, I really had no one to talk to about what I was going through.”
Aaron remembers sneaking out to go to a computer shop “just to open this gay-centric social networking site,” he said. And even when already online, “I was somewhat paranoid, chatting only after making sure no one around me saw the site I logged into.”
But once logged in, Aaron said it was like entering a “completely different world, where there were other people like me with whom I could confidently speak with with discretion.”
Now 23 years old and based in Makati City, Aaron said that in hindsight, “I guess that gay ‘space’, even if online, helped me discover myself.” In fact, since those days of sneaking out, he was able to form close friendships with some people from various gay-centric social networking sites (and nowadays, geosocial networking applications/apps). “I’ve come to realize that we can make these sites as spaces where we can be free, enjoy a sense of belongingness, and look for someone to share and enjoy that sense of freedom.”
And in the current analysis of gay-centric social networking sites/geosocial networking applications (apps), this value is often relegated – if mentioned at all – to the more generally accepted raison d’être of accessing them just to find sexual partners.
TRUTH IN THE STEREOTYPE
There’s no going around the fact that the impetus of gay-centric social networking sites like the aforementioned Guys4Men.com and its ilk Adam4Adam and ManHunt, and their more current iterations, the geosocial networking applications (apps) like Grindr, Jack’d, Scruff, Tinder and Hornet was to primarily connect users to enjoy the proverbial “joys of the flesh”.
Speaking to Outrage Magazine from Roxas City in the Province of Capiz in Eastern Visayas, 29-year-old Simplicio Vito Jr. bluntly said that “I created accounts (in the apps) to get fucking buddies,” he laughed. “I may be wrong here, but isn’t that why most join these sites to begin with?”
Simplicio isn’t alone with this line of thinking.
In Las Piñas City, 30-year-old Ayem Tan said that “to be completely honest, I created accounts (when I was 23) so that I could meet other gay guys for sex.”
When they created accounts in these apps, both Simplicio and Ayem weren’t out yet and were therefore largely unfamiliar with the gay scenes where they were based, much more how to navigate the gay scene.
“I didn’t even know where gay guys hang out, or – even if I knew – how to make ‘awra (approach them)’, so picking up online was a no-brainer for me,” said Ayem who, when he started using the apps, only just broke up with a girlfriend.
This does not come as a surprise to Evan Tan, country marketing manager for the Philippines of Blued. “We don’t discount the fact that (gay) apps do help people look for sex,” he said.
But this is not all there is to it, said Tan. “What we can say though is that, from what we’ve seen, there’s (a sizable number of people who) put primary importance in looking for friends, a community they can belong to, or a romantic partner,” Tan said.
NOT CAST IN STONE
Tan ought to know what he’s talking about.
When Blued conducted a research of its users, the main reason cited by those surveyed on why they created a Blued profile to begin with was to “make or find friends to form a community” (13,204 respondents). Looking for BF as a reason only came second (11,092 respondents), while – get this! – looking for a sex partner came in last among the options, with only 6,094 respondents claiming this as a reason for creating a Blued account.
Community formation as a priority may be said to be not surprising since – still in Blued’s study – a big percentage of those surveyed were still not out. Specifically, only 37.4% were out to close friends, and less than 10% (or 9.7%) claimed that their family knows of their sexual orientation/gender identity.
According to Libay Linsangan Cantor, media educator and advocacy filmmaker, the evolution of forming groups/finding friends, with a growing number of LGBT people now doing this online, is not surprising.
In 2013, Cantor conducted a study on online homosocialization in the Philippines. In this study, she found that the middle to lower classes created groups online that were eventually appropriated offline; some of these online groups are the so-called “clans”, which are informal groups of LGBT people whose initial – if not main – mode of contact/staying together is with the use of tech.
“These online platforms served as the entry points of the queer doors one would want to enter, and queers had the luxury to choose which doors they want to enter, to have those connections they seek,” Cantor said.
For Cantor, “the basic human need to connect, plus the easier access to technology, is the winning combo here… Development is always a good thing if it serves some basic human purpose. If it lessens the queer depression and suicide rates, then yes, it’s good. Not all humans are designed the same way, so if this tech thing helps some people cope with life better, then that will always be a good thing.”
In a way, however, Blued is helped by its being different particularly when compared with other LGBT-targeting apps.
“Unlike other apps that were developed in countries that were friendlier towards members of the LGBT community, Blued originated from China, which is less open to gay men,” Tan said. “These gay men sought other people who shared the same experiences as they did, and Blued became the channel where they can discuss their shared experiences. This may have set the purpose for the app itself as it expanded to other places: more than sex, which is not bad, this is a place to meet friends and form relationships.”
Blued was launched in 2012 by Geng Le (a.k.a. Ma Baoli), a married former police officer in northern China. For 12 years, he secretly managed Danlan.org, a website for gay people. But his superiors discovered the website also in 2012, and Geng Le lost his family and job. It was this that drove him to create Blued
Many gay men – arguably particularly those who are exposed to Western (e.g. American) media – are familiar with Grindr, another geo-based dating app, which was established in 2009. The popular app counted four million users in 192 countries in 2012, growing to 10 million in 2016. As per Grindr data, it now has 2.4 million active users every day.
Surprisingly, Grindr’s numbers are not even half Blued’s, which now counts 27 million users (majority of them still in its country of origin, China), making it the largest gay social network in the world. Every day, Blued sees active use from 11 million pax.
Again, this popularity may illustrate how an app can become a safe space. After all, if a gay American opts not to use Grindr, he can always go to a gay bar, which is something not afforded other people in other contexts (for instance in far-flung areas in China, or even in the likes of Lucena City or Roxas City).
In the Philippines, Blued has about half a million users, with most between 19-32 years old. A big bulk of the current members come from Quezon City, San Juan City, Makati City, Banugao, Bacoor and Bacolod.
Not surprisingly, even Grindr has been evolving – if not the approach, then at least its market base. In a survey involving 2,500 users, almost half (or 47%) said they formed close friendships through the app, perhaps also showing that not everyone is just searching for ‘Mr. Right Now’.
Cantor said that “we have to remember that LGBT people redefined the definition of the ‘closet’ since not all queer lives can be displayed outside confidently, for oppressive and marginalized reasons we already know. Online life became like one important and highly significant window from where closeted queers can still see and connect with the outside world while ‘comfortably’ ensconced in their closets. This lessens many negative things that closeted queers previously handled alone and in the proverbial dark: isolation, self-doubt/hate/loathing/denial, depression, and even suicidal thoughts,” she said. “The online world lets us see that there are so many of us out there pala, like we are not alone in feeling the things we feel which society deem as ‘abnormal’ or ‘being deviant’, et cetera. That there are people like us out there who successfully navigate this judgmental world, whether their victories are small or huge, that’s such an important thing to see, witness, and realize. In a way, online connections have empowered queer people to reach out to others and connect in small ways or big ways.”
For Cantor, people gravitating towards friendships formed online is “but the next natural progression of being human, even if it feels artificial sometimes because technology use is involved. But remove tech and you still get that fundamental need of humans to connect. So this is why I believe we shouldn’t demonize this new way of ‘making friends’.”
INTENT (AND CONTENT) VARIATION
This is also why the drive for Blued, said Tan, goes beyond just helping people pick up, but to “help people find friends and a community.” With this intent, the app is therefore atypical when compared to other similar apps.
“Blued actually allows you to add friends, join groups, and even broadcast your hobbies and interests to other people,” Tan said. “We encourage people to keep it wholesome, because ultimately, they can always go to other apps if they’re just solely looking for sex. We want Blued to be more than just that. We want it to be a safe space where people can be who they are, without fear of judgment or discrimination.”
Blued features include: verification to guarantee that people have been manually authenticated as genuine profiles by Blued’s moderation team; ability to go live within a community of peers and to show what life is like around them; feeds to allow users to scroll through a stream of photos or videos posted by guys they have chosen to follow; grid that displays nearby profiles by distance, and users can either follow those profiles or engage in one-to-one conversations; and – obviously – the groups that allow the online homosocialization to develop/happen.
For Tan, the approach makes Blued more similar to Facebook than other hook-up apps.
No matter the form, Cantor said that online platforms are where people search for like-minded individuals first, then they bring the interaction offline via EBs (eyeball, usually one-on-one meetings) and meet-ups (for groups). “Early chatrooms like FLO (Filipino Lesbians Online) inside Gay.com’s women chatrooms pioneered this, followed by Friendster, and then later Facebook and Twitter. Now, there are the apps,” she said. “That basic need to connect — for friendship or love – never changes, even if media platforms for doing that changes in leaps and bounds.”
Twenty-three-year-old Aaron recognizes that “there may be differences in the approaches with making friends online/virtually versus making friends in the physical world. However, these differences eventually disappear once we get to know people – meet them to have drinks, catch up for coffee, watch flicks, and so on. By then, the only thing that will matter is having met someone who you can truly call as a friend, regardless if you first met him virtually or in the physical world.”
Las Piñas City-based Ayem agrees, considering that “since coming out gay after breaking up with my long-term girlfriend, I found most of my gay and bi friends from virtual communities,” he said. “Finding one good friend from (these apps) is good enough as it has a snowball effect; just find one and he can introduce you to his other friends. And before you know it, you find yourself a new tropa/barkada.”
Admittedly, there continue to be challenges. Simplicio from Roxas City, for one, said that meeting someone from online can be impersonal. “At times,” he said, “it’s like you’re talking to a robot. You cannot necessarily feel the sincerity of the person, and sometimes you can’t even understand each other.”
Then there are the “fakers”, Ayem said. “The person you might be talking to will be using a different picture or super filtered picture. They could pretend to be somebody they’re not.”
But “as it is in the physical world, you really just have to get to know people better,” Ayem said. And with this way of looking, “the onus is on you to take caution.”
For Cantor, “we still need to touch and kiss each other, right? And hello, sex! So no, these online worlds are just there for us to ‘shop around’ the market. And when we’ve picked our choices, we bring the online choice to the offline world, where the next level of exploration and interaction happens. This may seem very transactional, but isn’t that what love and friendship’s about, too?”
Cantor also recommends cautiousness. “Just don’t easily invest emotionally on every Tomasa, Darya or Henrietta who smiles at you, pokes you endlessly, winks, sends love-likes, whatever. The one thing that differentiates online interactions from offline is that you don’t easily see or feel the other person’s response, or responses can be faked. Anonymity is also a crucial hurdle here, since it’s also fairly easy for someone to pose as another person, or to hide one’s real persona, from the person they’re talking to,” she said. “Folks, common sense should still prevail, even online — especially online!”
“There’s a lot of BFF success stories out there that started virtually,” Aaron said. “I think you just have to have an open mind. And – perhaps just as important – recognize that there are those who, like me when I was still new to all these, have no other means of being with people like us but through these. Because yes, (the much maligned gay pick-up apps) can be more than just for gay trysts.”