Monday, 28 December 2020

Gay dating and hookup apps: how do they work?

You may be wondering how apps like Grindr, Tinder, and Taimi all work. See here for my review of the best apps. There are two types of apps:

Screen shot from Grindr, a grid-based app showing user profiles in an auto-updating grid
Grid-based apps show a grid of guys, sorted by
location - nearest to more distant, from left to right. Any 
grid app allows instant contact with other users.

Screen shot from Tinder, showing a card detailing a user profile. Tinder is a card-stack app.
Card-stack apps such as tinder display
a stack of cards with user profiles and you then
swipe left or right to indicate if you like them or not.
The user cards presented are not sorted by distance,
but rather in a randomized fashion. With these apps
you will have to wait until the user you like
also likes you before you can start chatting!


All these apps use location to help you find other users. Most apps will prompt you to turn on location on your phone if it's already off. The app gets your location through the internals of your phone and uses the most recent location that was detected by your phone.

If you move with your phone the app will normally also update your location and keep showing you users relative to where you are. 

Grid apps like Grindr and Romeo will show other users how near you are relative to them, updated in near real time. Card apps like Tinder shows the distance to the user but not in near real time, only from when they last opened the app on their phone.

Sent someone a message but never got a reply? The single most annoying part of using these apps is when users don't respond. You match with someone and then they never respond. Apps like Tinder where you have to first match with someone to chat are the worst for this. The reason is often technical: the user doesn't get a notification of your message because "push notifications" don't work or aren't turned on. On an iPhone you have to actively turn on this feature. So, don't despair if you never hear anything it could simply be you have to wait until Mr-Maybe-Right opens his app on his phone and trawls through his inbox.

Other reasons for no response may of course be:
1) The user is ignoring you
2) The user has an owerflowing inbox and can't cope
3) The user no longer exists - they deleted their account or got banned

Distance-based location grids are circular from your location!
Apps like Grindr, Romeo, Hornet, and Jack'd all show users displayed in a grid, sorted by nearest to farthest relative to your GPS location. Some people seem to think that location-based apps only display guys in the same country that you are in, but it's not the case. When you open the app it will show you a grid of guys, normally sorted by distance. This means the guys who are nearest to you are nearest to your tile in the grid. What may not be obvious is that the distance is circular, radiating outwards from your location. You are right in the middle of this circle, and the grid then displays guys outwards from that location. Usually you can select the maximum radius of this circle in the app, for example 100 miles or 160kms. This has some odd side-effects. The maximum radius of the circle does not take any borders or geographic obstacles like a sea or lake into account. 

If for example you are in the South East of the UK you will start to see guys from France. Go to Upington in South Africa, and suddenly you have guys from neighbouring Namibia in your grid. Or San Diego, so close to the Mexican border that half your grid may be guys from Mexico! I don't mind any of this. But it's sometimes awkward, and sometimes frustrating - you see the cutest guy ever but he is actually several hours away across the sea and to top it all he doesn't even speak your language. It gets even worse when the guy you are interested is just across the border but you need a visa to visit that country. 

Example map showing a big red circle around the whole "catchment area" for which distance-based dating apps will show you profiles. The area is completely circular with your handset in the middle.
Distance-based apps show you users within a circular distance from your location. For example, if you live in Maidstone, UK you may see users in Calais, France.

What about card-stack apps and showing nearby users?

Card-stack apps show users within a certain radius in a stack of cards that you swipe through, one by one. This radius is the same as for grid apps, so if you set  your radius to 50 kms then it's literally 50 kms radiating out from your location.

I have yet to come across an app that allows you to filter by country, but it would be useful!

Faking your location?

Some guys may not physically be where your app says they are. The apps display the distance from you to where their phone says they are. Their phone in turn uses the GPS location feature of their phone. It is possible to fake this and make your phone think it's in an entirely different location. All it takes is a small app that you download to your phone, and you can then set your location to anywhere in the world. 

Why would someone want to fake their location? 

  • You are interested in meeting guys who live far away from where you are
  • You want to hide your real location for safety reasons
Faking your location is controversial. Many guys are often not interested in talking to other guys that are far away (if you are looking to hook up, for example). Therefore, some guys in Africa and Asia fake their location to pretend they are somewhere in the US or Europe. Some have intentions that are less than honourable, others genuinely want to meet someone in a different continent. Generally there is a correlation between the socioeconomic situation in the country and the likelyhood of a fake location. 

You may be surprised to learn that it's possible to narrow down your location when you are on these apps. They never reveal the exact location down to the meter but you can come within a few blocks. As an experiment I created a new, fake profile and then used a simple fake GPS app to set my location. I could then position myself near to any user that I saw on Grindr. I picked one user, and could see when he came online that he was in different locations relative to me. I experimented, and found if I changed my position enough times in a systematic way it was possible to triangulate a small area on the map where he was at the time. Therefore, all apps that are location-based pose a personal safety security risk, since it is possible to narrow down someone's approximate location using this method.

Recently it has come to light that apps like Grindr still make it possible to pinpoint your exact location. Be careful.

Can fake locations be stopped?
It's really hard. In theory, some things can be done. But those things can also lead to "false positives" where someone is flagged as faking their location but is in fact not. In theory you could correlate the users geolocation from their IP address with the location reported by the GPS receiver on their device.  The easiest to detect is probably if a user moves from one location to another faster than what is physically possible. One moment they are in Manchester, 15 minutes afterwards they are in Seattle - this is physically impossible. But detecting this takes some serious effort. And how do you avoid false positives? Someone could for example be taking a short 30 minute flight and move themselves a considerable distance. It's not clear-cut and probably the reason none of the apps seem to crack down on it, unless reported to them. Perhaps we will just have to wait until there are Artificial Intelligence systems capable of detecting this.

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