Plug In, Log On ... Drop Out?

by Steve Weinstein

NoiZe Magazine

Monday October 29, 2012

Gay men have long been the proverbial canary in the digital coalmine. Research has repeatedly shown that we embrace every bright, shiny new digital gadget that comes on the market early and enthusiastically. "Gays and lesbians have a long history of being early adapters of new technologies," according to Out Now Consulting, an Australian company.

Not long ago, Logo put out some statistics that bore this out. Whereas only slightly more than a third of heterosexuals paid bills online, for example, nearly two-thirds of gay men and lesbians did so. Twice as many of us have personal blogs (24 percent vs. 12 percent). And twice as many of us read blogs daily.

That term "adapters" takes on new meaning when one considers the history of social media, the Internet and mobile devices. Back in the pre-historic days of the early 1990s, the only way to "chat" other than phone lines was to log onto AOL. AOL's chat rooms originally were intended as a way for family and friends to keep in touch - a proto-Facebook. Ha! Very quickly, hook-up chat rooms known as "M4M," which had sprung up in every city and catering to every fetish, took over. Despite the painfully slow dial-up modems via telephone wires, as early as 1989, cities like New York had dozens of M4M chat rooms.

This happened over and over again. I remember talking to a man who had started an early Texas-based Internet site that allowed for photo sharing. He expected it would be used by businesspeople showing charts or new products; or a way for Grandma to view Baby's first steps. He soon found his site had been taken over by - you guessed it - gay men exchanging photos that would have bugged out Granny's eyeballs.

Cue to the rise of broadband, and with it, hook-up sites like Manhunt, which has over four million paying users. Consider that that's only one of a slew of such sites catering to every taste, from daddy hunters to bears to barebackers to uses of the human body no surgeon could envision. With the rise of mobile devices, the hook-up scene has accordingly switched, with granddaddy Grindr being joined by a host of competing apps.

The many apps available on so-called smartphones have long since surpassed actually speaking to someone else, which is beginning to seem as fusty as Alexander Graham Bell paging Mr. Watson. By far the commonest usage of smartphones is browsing the Internet, followed by social networking (including cruising), music and games. Making phone calls is in there somewhere, as is texting, of course, and taking photos.

Walking, Dancing ... Texting

Living in the heart of Hell's Kitchen, New York's main gayborhood, and walking two large dogs who can easily get tangled in an inattentive ongoing pedestrian's legs, I can testify that most - not many, most - gay men pay more attention to their smartphones than to what's going on around them, up to and including pit bulls.

This phenomenon is hardly limited to walking. Go into any gay-centric restaurant, gay bar or club, and you'll see more men intent on their cell phones than on the people around them. Singer-songwriter Jonny McGovern, who has made something of a cottage industry out of celebrating and satirizing gay culture, even has a song out called "Texting on the Dance Floor."

"It's certainly changed nightlife," McGovern says. "I remember when people who had cell phones on the dance floor looked ridiculous. But now, you're constantly connected 24/7." McGovern was inspired to write his song when he was in a Los Angeles club and "everyone was on cell phones. There's no way to fight it. The crazy thing was, I was then texting someone to tell him everyone was texting!"

Why Go Out When You Can Order In?

The effect of the digital revolution on gay nightlife hasn't completely sorted itself out yet, but the effect appears to be profound. Hard as it is to believe, not all that long ago, you had to get dressed and go out to a bar - or at least cruise the streets - to get laid. Younger gay men are growing into adulthood in a world in which it's much easier, more efficient and quicker to go online to find fun. Add to that the XXX photos that allow you to inspect the plumbing without the bother of undressing him; and the availability of hundreds of men. "When you order in, you can be very specific," points out John Blair, veteran club promoter who now owns XL bar in New York's Out Hotel. How can a street scene or a bar compete with that?

Older observers bemoan the end of what they see as an essential part of the gay experience - the interested head turn, the slow backtrack, the small talk ... all the little niceties that used to make hooking up a mating ritual instead of a buffet table. Philip Brian Harper, a professor at New York University, calls it the "serendipity of male sexual encounters. There was a publicness of gay male sexual culture missing now," Harper has told me. "When there was no Manhunt, the manhunt had to take place in public contexts rather than in private spaces in front of a computer screen."

Another professor, Ken Race of the University of Sydney (Australia), sees cruising moving from bath, bar and boulevard online as "an increasingly privatized sexual culture."

It's gotten to the point where meeting someone at a club isn't even socially acceptable. The parting tag line used to be "Your place or mine?"; now it's "I'll see you later on Manhunt." No one wants to seal the deal without checking out his profile and photos - and making sure that there's no one out there hotter who's cruising you before sealing the deal.

The Changing Scene

If everyone's online, who's in the clubs? Plenty of people, although the model has changed. Rather than going out with the purpose of hooking up, people are meeting in bars or dancing in the clubs for the sheer fun of it. This helps explain why there are so many more women (and straight men, for that matter) in "our" venues: When you're not trying to score, you can let your hair down and be silly.

I've heard many older gay men bemoan how much less younger gay guys affect a macho posture. Instead of sneering in a corner holding a beer, they're laughing, throwing their hands in the air at the first bars of a Katy Perry song. Oh yes, and texting. They're also drinking cocktails - great for the bars but not so great for the old-fashioned all-night dancing "journey."

Part of the reason is that they don't have to work as hard to establish a gay identity. Coming out earlier and acceptance from straight friends mean that they don't have to be more macho than a straight man to find acceptance. Nor do they feel they have to be in a big room with 1,500 people who look like them every weekend to assert their sexual identity. "They're out by age 13," notes Stephen Pevner, whose Saint-at-Large produces the Black Party. "The young guys know who they are and don't need affirmation."

But also, life is just plain harder these days. "Twentysomethings are struggling," Pevner says. "They're working harder. They have to be at their jobs on Monday morning. And they don't have the time to put into the amount of work it takes to have a gym body."

So what will pry gay men away from their electronic gadgets and back into bars? Maybe smaller, more intimate, more underground-feeling events, where socializing still feels edgy. At least that's the theory according to New Yorker Daniel Nardicio, whose in-your-face, down-and-dirty parties in some very out-of-the-way makeshift spaces attract flocks of twentysomethings. "There has to be an element of danger, of sleaze," he says. "The mainstream bars can't do that because they're so patrolled by the police. So I look at more lenient private spaces."

Also, Nardicio adds, the possibility of getting it on on site. To compete with online sex, he offers ... sex. "Sex still sells," Nardicio says. "But it has to be more than throwing mattresses on the floor for a sex party. It has to be out of the box, but promote bonding."

Bonding. It's a concept.

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