'Tis the Season for (Online) Dating: National Survey of Gay Men Finds Dating Apps Replace Bars as Best Place to Find Guys

12/29/2012 10:42 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

"The movement for gay identity and gay rights has come further and faster, in terms of change, than any other that has gone before it in this nation." -- Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America, June 2001.

It's been more than a decade since those words were published in Out for Good, a book by Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney that details the march -- sometimes sprint -- towards equality for gay and lesbian Americans in the last few years of the 20th century. Though on a personal level it may feel agonizingly slow at times, the changes to American gay life have accelerated so much that it has not only transformed law and federal policy, but also altered nearly every facet of our lives in both concrete and intangible ways.

Life for LGBT persons today in many ways doesn't come close to resembling life at the time of the 1969 Stonewall riots. Marriage equality, for instance, was virtually inconceivable then. And the idea that the President of the United States would support the freedom of same-sex couples to marry, was entirely out of the question.

Similarly, a mere 10 years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that mobile technology would alter how we find and form connections -- especially for gay men. From my perspective, the efforts of gay rights champions and gay men's love affair with technology have coalesced to alter our social lives. Look around in major U.S. "gayborhoods" and you're likely to see a much altered scene of people and businesses present, and a lot of male faces buried in the screens of their smartphones.

Yet, the same has not been true for women. Thus far, no lesbian-centric app has burst onto the scene causing a stir like a few first generation apps for gay men have. I wonder why that is, and whether it will change in the future. My hunch is that technology has yet to get to a point to support the nuances of connection and communication preferred more often by women. It is a fascinating and complex difference I'll explore further another time.

In my professional life as a psychologist, I see daily how gay men adapt to, and thrive in, the changing landscape. I have noted a shift in how my gay male clients described meeting guys for hookups and dates. Until around 2010, my clients would frequently talk about meeting guys at bars or via online dating websites. In my view, it was no coincidence that this conversation started to shift when A) mobile dating apps hit the scene at approximately the same time that B) momentum was building towards major wins in the national equality movement. That led me to wonder, as oppressive legal and social structures fall away and our neighborhoods change, how are new ways of forming connections progressing?

Being an out, loud and proud nerd, I decided to more thoroughly explore my questions about the impact of technology on socializing and dating among gay men. Was it true, in terms of meeting potential dates, that the era of the gay bar and personal computer was ending? And, if so, what kind of effect did it have on the way men connect?

I, along with one of my colleagues, pored over hundreds of psychological studies over the past two years to gain insight into the impact of online technology on forming relationships. We coupled those baseline research findings with a nationwide survey that asked a variety of questions about first-generation mobile dating apps. We asked how those apps changed the social lives of gay men and how they were most used. The results from 537 single gay and bisexual men are illuminating. Our data show a distinctive divide between what first generation apps do and what men hope future apps could provide, (with first generation apps being the wave of apps that started this new way of connecting approximately 3-4 years ago). It's appropriately fitting to discuss what we found now, since the days between December 26th and Valentine's Day is when the use of online and mobile dating peaks.

My colleague and I were curious if some of that face-buried-in-smartphone time was spent on first generation mobile dating apps. The majority of men in our survey responded that this was indeed the case, with 56 percent reporting that they use dating apps in public. We were also curious if, unlike the "at home alone" stereotype of online dating and hookup websites, users of mobile dating apps integrated them into their social lives. One-third said they use them among friends.

It's also fascinating to note that while some things change, others remain the same. More than three out of four men in our survey indicated that they struggle to find guys to connect with. Likewise, over six in 10 men said they fear getting shot down when introducing themselves, and the same number struggle with figuring out how to break the ice to initiate a conversation. Mobile app technology is easing those long-held anxieties, with 78 percent of men saying that apps allowed them to start a conversation with a guy that they otherwise wouldn't have.

But what about first generation apps' impact on the bar scene? And what do men say is the best use of these apps? First generation dating apps are viewed as the most promising place -- by far -- to find a hookup, with over 50 percent of the respondents ranking it number one in a list of several possible uses for these apps. According to the men in our survey, prior to the advent of dating apps, bars held that title, but they are now a distant second.

This is only part of the story, though. While the hookup reputation of current apps appears well-deserved, there are also a surprisingly high number of men who seek something more than casual sex. We asked men to indicate the type of relationship they use the app to find; 66 percent said they use them to seek long-term potential, 64 percent to find friends. So the majority of men we surveyed use these apps hoping to find more than a fun fling, yet seem to believe that apps haven't yet caught up to their entire set of needs Overwhelmingly, the respondents reported that they wanted to learn about the personalities and interests of other men more holistically, rather than just seeing a picture.

In my eyes, mobile dating apps are a powerful expression of our desire to find community, friendship, chemistry, and love. They are the brightest technological star for forging new connections and, according to our survey participants, we've only scratched the surface of what is to come from this emerging platform. The future of this technology is at the heart of why I jumped at the chance help design Stagg, a new dating app for gay men.

But, like the men in the survey, I believe we've only just begun to see how this technology will positively change our lives. There is a discrepancy in what first generation apps are good at providing and what men hope for as this technology advances. I saw an overarching theme in our data: locating nearby gay men is intensely fascinating and exciting, but it is just the beginning - a beginning that leaves you craving to know more than just his location. What's missing is a way to discover shared interests, to find out what makes him unique, to have an indication of how likely you are to click with him, and to possess an app that enhances our sex, social and love lives.