At last. It's here. A straight version of the dazzlingly successful gay hook-up app Grindr. Its name? Blendr. The key change they've made to make it work for hetero types? They've taken out the sex... or have they?
Launched in 2009, Grindr now has 2.6 million users worldwide, of whom 104,000 are in London. Profiles have pictures, stats and often sexual predilection, and the app is an unembarrassed no-frills tool for booty. In contrast Blendr, which went live this month, is apparently platonic - designed to help you 'make friends, build connections, and explore your surroundings'. Is this change a stroke of genius, emphasising the need men and women have for friendship, as opposed to disposable relationships, and heralding a new connectivity? Is it really a sex app, but in disguise? Or is it simply missing the point?
On Blendr's release, lively web discussion expressed disappointment. Some users suggested this 'neutered' version underestimates the female libido. Others suspected a cynical marketing ploy: that Blendr has the wolfish heart of Grindr, with a grandmother bonnet over the top. Creator Joel Simkhai pleads neither. 'Our natural inclination had been to make another dating site,' he tells me. 'But when we did research we found the public's biggest need was to find better ways to interact with new people. We live in an isolated world. The goal of Blendr is therefore to break down social barriers and get everyone connecting.'
The app is free, supported by ads, and available through the Apple Store. Once you've downloaded it, you add a bio and select interests. The choices, however, are basic. It's hard to project a love of TS Eliot and a weakness for dirty martinis by ticking boxes that say respectively 'books' and 'nightlife'. Your profile complete, the screen opens to a grid of (mostly) faces, with a green light by anyone else online. You might seek out connections by filtering peers according to age, sex, interests, or geographical proximity. Or, Simkhai suggests, you could use it as a 'social compass', by looking at the 'heat' map which shows hotspots where Blendr users (Blendrists?) are, and then joining them. 'You might have been going to a gym for years, but never spoken to anyone,' Simkhai continues. 'With Blendr you might find someone who shares your passion for spinning and also for pets, so you can go and introduce yourself with something to say. Or you might be in a supermarket line, and discover the person next to you also loves hiking...'
I have a vision of finding an NBF in the aisle of Tesco, our friendship vaulting the sterile atmosphere of the chilled section. So I log on. Ignoring openers that are dull ('hey'), plaintive ('can we chat') or weird ('mog mog'), I encounter people from a range of ages and backgrounds who banter pleasantly enough. Several share my interest in Blendr as a connectivity app. Others are more wary. Olive, 23, who smiles seductively through a fringe of blonde hair, tells me, 'From my short experience there are a lot of perverts, not honest and only looking for easy sex.' Derek, 32, who lazes back on a pillow and who likes pop, is affronted by the number of 'overzealous girls who ask for cock shots. Straight away!!!'
Sure enough, ten minutes in I am messaged by Jay, 28, a headless torso whose abs ripple into a low-slung tracksuit. 'I'm looking for good sex,' he says. 'Can you suck my cook [sic].'
Future trend analyst Dr Graeme Codrington says: 'I understand why Blendr wouldn't make that its official position, but I don't see what it brings to the mix versus other apps unless it is >sex. Otherwise why wouldn't you use other interactive location sites such as foursquare or Facebook, where you can connect with friends of friends, and hence there is some level of trust? This is a way of hooking up with total strangers. Why would you do that if not for a particular reason?'
There are further sites which are obvious alternatives, including Meetup (share your hobbies), Badoo (location-based flirting) and Google+ (whose 'find your +' feature allows you to search for new friends via keywords). Simkhai describes Blendr as an evolution from these. 'The whole point is finding contacts from outside your circle, and searching for them using all the filters, like location as well as hobbies. This is also why it's different from other dating apps, which are about a quick fix. Blendr is compelling because it will help members find long-term friendships or relationships, not just someone with whom they can jump into bed.'
As Erotic Affairs Editor for GQ magazine I've heard myriad tales of online dating disasters: dates who stink, stalk, make racist comments, one person was even asked to help found a cult. In the same way that we are shifting back to slow food grown in traditional ways, maybe we are ready for more authentic courtship. Perhaps 'friending' over shared interest is the new slow-burn hook-up, a natural reaction to speed dating.
Mary Higgs, founder of Londonbased thegreatdateguide.com, agrees that people are ready to spend time getting to know prospective partners, and are wary of online dating. But she fears users are likely to be even more disappointed if they meet through an app. 'Blendr makes it even easier to meet people. I don't know if this is a good thing. It takes away the excitement of anticipation, reducing dating to logistics and practicality. There's no room for chemistry. Anyway,' she continues, 'it would appear these apps are used for quick liaisons. I don't believe a woman from Battersea will use it to find someone with whom she can do her knitting.'
I decide to see if Blendr will find me a friend. In the pub I sit in a corner, mates chatting round me, to try to locate a candidate. At last, one thread seems promising: Nick, 31, an architect who lives in Marylebone. We both like triathlon, but unlike me he's cracked the swimming and agrees to meet to give me tips.
Waiting in The Natural Kitchen I wonder if Nick will be the missing link who boosts my triathlon training, or whether he'll be delusional, or an axe murderer. In the flesh Nick looks like his picture and is presentable - even fragrant - in a battered grandad shirt. He orders a carrot juice, and it starts well enough. But once we've talked, a lot, about front crawl, and exhausted the 'possibility v utters' of Blendr, there's not
much more to say. It's hard enough to keep up with old friends, and without romantic propulsion we agree it would need to be a dynamic meeting of minds to make it worth meeting again. I suspect we won't. Nick's status is 'looking for dates, networks, chat', so I ask him if he thinks he'll find any soul mates. 'Maybe, but to be honest the chat process is quite painful. And there are hardly any girls.'
The most positive Blendrist I connect with is SocialSlide, 41. She comments: 'Eighty per cent of the site is guys looking for fun, and I've had more indecent proposals than decent ones. But the other 20 per cent is people using it as a social tool, like me. I want to use it for innocent fun: to be in a bar and see that there is someone else there and have a drink and a laugh with them. I'll definitely keep going, though I'll block people who are out for only one thing.'
The block tool is key. As is caution with the privacy settings. Waiting for Nick, I entertained myself tracing other users in the vicinity. Despite having gone offline, at home that night I discovered Blendr had been beaming out my address for several hours. 'Freaky! You must live in my building,' said one message. I see the facility of this, and have admired it as part of the kick in using Grindr. But as a woman I felt incredibly vulnerable.
'Of course, Blendr's no more dangerous than anything else, but must be used with caution,' says social psychologist Dr Sandra Wheatley. 'To ban it as being dangerous would be like banning phones lest people make obscene calls.' Codrington agrees. 'To be safe, it must be used wisely, meeting in public places and so forth. To be successful, it must also be widely adopted: for you to find the particular person who fulfils your specifications there needs to be a large pool of users.'
As well as a critical mass, Blendr will also need a relatively even ratio of men to women. When I spoke to Simkhai it was too early for data to have been collated, but a gross preponderance of men would seem likely to put off some potential users.
If it achieves these, there is no reason why it should not blend the repartee of Twitter and the functionality of foursquare to become a relevant social tool. As Greg Williams, executive editor of Wired observes, 'Two of the biggest trends in technology at the moment are social apps and mobile: if Simkhai gets the platform right he'll have a big success on his hands.'
Furthermore, if members are respectful there is no reason why it shouldn't also be a heterosexual Grindr. Back in the pub, when her boyfriend had left, my friend Cathy added: 'Girls probably do find it easier to find casual sex than men. Still, sometimes you go out, spend a fortune, and go home with nothing but a hangover. At least you could do this sober, and without having to go out all night. I can see single women using it to cultivate a collection of booty calls.' Or the odd GPS-assisted zipless f***.
To find anyone with whom you'd wish to forge a long-term relationship, however, expect to spend weeks, even years, typing banalities into chat boxes and swatting libidinous overtures made in irritating text talk. During which time you risk surrendering the will to live. App-assisted friending makes sense. But for anyone living in a dynamic, multicultural capital such as London, so does putting away your iPhone and going up to that person in the chiller aisle, bar or gym and actually saying hello. ES
Original article published in Evening Standard, in February, 2012