In the past two years mobile dating apps have transformed the lives of gay men worldwide. You can now be on a remote island, at Home Depot, at church, or even on another date and easily find someone nearby to meet (or, in some states, marry). Mobile dating apps are fun, easy to use, highly efficient, and here to stay.
They can also be an emotional minefield, especially for anyone who feels too skinny, too fat, too ethnic, too hairy, too girly, or -- gasp! -- too old, which, in the gay-dating-app world, means anyone over 30. As gay men we may congratulate ourselves on having made progress in the past decade on such important issues as marriage, adoption, and bullying, but we've yet to make positive strides in the online and mobile arenas. The app culture that's emerged in recent years is often more intimidating, negative, and noninclusive than many of the online hookup sites that preceded them.
As if reducing oneself to a single torso shot and 120 characters or less weren't hard enough, some guys think nothing of attacking each other publicly and proudly with profiles filled with knife-edge putdowns. "I block more Asians than the Great Wall of China," one user boasts. "No fatties, no daddies, no furballs, no queens," says another. At times mobile dating can feel more like the high-school cafeteria in Mean Girls than a way to engage in social networking or hook up.
There is a tendency for many gay guys to choose to show a limited, strategic, even negative version of who they are on these apps, in order to willfully avoid real connections and live in the world of fantasy and escapism. Why? Because hooking up for sex is quick and easy. The other things, like connecting on an emotional level, chatting with people who don't immediately fit your sexual requirements, and looking out for your emotional well-being and that of others, are hard, time-consuming, complex, and even scary. They require you to be vulnerable. They require asking questions and listening. In other words, it's a slow build, the antithesis of "10 feet away."
The gay community has always been highly competitive when it comes to dating. But the combination of limited screen "real estate," a lack of filters, a sea of perfect body shots, and an overwhelming number of young, immature guys has created an app culture that is anything but inclusive. This is especially difficult for older guys, who are routinely dismissed and bullied online. Gay culture is one of the most ageist cultures in America. As a result, older gay men are targets of some of the worst online vitriol from other gay men. Many older men have to get "creative" when listing their ages or risk being unattractive to younger guys. Even compliments to younger guys can elicit mean, pejorative responses, like, "Go home, troll."
It's not uncommon for younger gay men to say, "If I'm still cruising at 40, just shoot me." They believe that once a man hits 40 or 50, he should be married and living in Palm Springs, or, better yet, Mexico. He certainly shouldn't still be looking. But as a happy, single, 40-year-old gay guy, I can attest that just because you hit a number, you don't stop looking for affirmation, validation, sex, and love. In the gay world love and sex are conflated at all ages and the search for both inauthentic and authentic validation persists even later in life. In other words, app twinks, the odds are pretty high that you, too, will still be clicking on thumbnails 20 years from now.
Take a deep breath. It's going to be more than OK.
There are a lot of guys -- I mean a lot of guys -- who like older men. There are also a lot of guys who are completely turned on by all types: truckers, bears, femme guys, tall guys, little guys, shy guys, daddies. Yes, gay guys young and old. There are many millions of people out there just like you, who like you just as you are right now. The problem is that this message gets easily lost in a sea of headless torsos on a 3.5-inch screen.
So last year I decided to build MISTER, a geolocation-based mobile dating app for real men -- of all ages and of all types. MISTER is a place where everyone, especially everyone over 30, is invited to feel comfortable and authentic. You don't have to lie or turn yourself into someone you're not to approach other guys. Think of MISTER as a friendly, low-key neighborhood gay bar that you can put in your pocket and take with you everywhere you go.
All members are asked to sign the MISTER Code when they first join, a commitment to an online experience rooted in Maturity, Integrity, Safety, Trust, Enjoyment, and Respect. Is it a corny acronym? Sure, but over 90 percent of our members voluntarily sign it. We encourage face pics instead of headless torsos and give users the ability to upload multiple photos. We give members up to 3,000 characters to share their fears, passions, and goals. In other words we give members the space to be real.
Most importantly, you won't find offensive profiles on MISTER like you do on other apps. Why? Because we boot them off the island. So far we've deleted the profiles of 4,576 Mean Girls and counting.
As website owners and developers, we can choose to create features and policies that encourage people to be good guys or Mean Girls. But we can't do it alone. All we can do is build the structure, like the outline of a coloring book. We need you to fill it in with beautiful, crazy, full profiles that celebrate who you are without making others feel small.
So I want to challenge you to make 2012 the year of being better online, no matter what app you choose to use. Let people see you as you really are. Take the time to respond to people who compliment you. Be open to connections with different types of guys. And think twice before writing "no one over X" in your profile, because trust me, gay guys, that next milestone birthday is fewer "feet away" than you think.
Follow Carl Sandler on Twitter: www.twitter.com/themisterapp