The World’s Biggest Gay Social Network Now Is a Publishing House, Too!

Creative Director LANDIS SMITHERS on Expanding GRINDR’s Radius

What do you do with one million men active on an app at any given moment? After seven years in the business of connecting them, Grindr started exploring further possibilities of bringing together the community of their users this year. Among creative director Landis Smithers and special projects manager Katie Dineen’s recent coups was the live stream of J.W. Anderson’s FW-16/17 presentation through the app. This past Saturday, Grindr launched the first release of their publishing house in Berlin. Entitled “Home,” it is a collection of portraits by the Berlin-based photographer Matt Lambert, who was commissioned by Grindr to travel and document a diversity of realities that gay men live around the globe.

This summer, 49 people were killed during a shooting at an Orlando gay club. This attack on queer people, a lot of them people of color, once again made painfully clear the importance of safe spaces for marginalized communities. The aim of Lambert’s book was to ask what contemporary safe spaces look like to gay men. 032c’s Bianca Heuser spoke to creative director Smithers about “Home,” the various directions Grindr plans to move into next, and how to engage a community on subjects ranging from art to politics and sexual health.

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Inside Matt Lambert’s “Home.”

032c: How long have you been the creative director at Grindr?

LANDIS SMITHERS: I joined them a little over a year ago. I was working as the creative director at Pepsi when they called me. Their approach was really interesting to me: “We’ve had all this success, we’re about seven years old, and now we have to have our next chapter. So if you had a million men active every minute on an app, if you had 2.5 million users a day guaranteed for around an hour – what would you do with that?” When I started thinking about it in that way I realized that it’s a giant social media platform and a lot of captive attention from a very specific audience. I sent them a big deck of visions of what I thought we could do, and they just said: “We only have one question. How quickly can you do this?” They have vision, a lot of courage and are not afraid to try things. Just the ability to go in and say, we want to do a little bit about fashion, and what do we do in sports? What do we do with art? With politics? Every time, we’ve looked for ways that are really relevant to the community, and then put a twist on it. Matt Lambert and I talked right after Orlando and decided to do this project. Really, we were talking about how we can address this without being sensational or fake. We treated it more as an explanation. We said that Matt would travel, find people in these cities and ask them what a safe space means to them. It’s not a bar anymore, so what is it? For most of them, it’s digital. The ability to create this universe for oneself and invite people in. We saw the book as a chance to be real and direct, unashamed and to address some very difficult topics.

It is rare that this is achieved without creating a clichéd tragic image of gay people.

It’s easy to go for the melodramatic and tragic. It’s much harder to go for the quiet and celebratory. We’re a culture that’s raised on sensationalism. I love the way Matt looks at people and lets them breathe and be themselves.

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Can you talk about other planned expansions of the Grindr universe?

Absolutely. We’re obviously looking at in-real-life activations. We’re looking at ways we can activate this digital network to bring people together in the physical world. We’re trying to find the different subsets: Do gays want to get together and talk about issues? Do we want to throw events that are for the community but also inclusive? That don’t follow what everyone expects? I don’t want to do another Coachella, but I want to find a way to give people something enjoyable. Probably the biggest project is the content channel we’re launching early next year. The idea is that we’ve got millions and millions of men around the world and a lot of them are creators – whether that’s dancers, poets, or photographers like Matt – and we want to give them a platform where they can share their work. Literally exposing emerging talent is so exciting for me. To me, it’s something that’s been missed for years by a creative community . There’s a lot of talk of supporting emerging talent, but it doesn’t happen that often.

The people who have the resources to support emerging talent usually aren’t aware of their biases. Few of them care about social inequality and so of course there is very little support for gay people, for people of color, or trans people. But now you’re actually trying to use the resources that Grindr’s success has provided them with to instal that kind of structure.

Exactly. Matt said this, and I’ve experienced it in my career as well. They can respect your talent, but they want it to fit a box. It’s all very segmented. The eye of minorities is beautiful in its own way and deserves to be celebrated without filters.

… In order to not be boxed as something differing from “the norm.”

And not make them fit what is comfortable. We want to give users a platform where they can dip into these bite-sized versions of the world on their phones. Hopefully they will like it.

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The contact users have with the app is very specific and directional. It’s interesting to try and broaden their perception of Grindr.

We call it short attention span theatre. When you’re on your mobile, you don’t want a giant essay to read. You want glimpses of things. I was standing at a bar one night and watching this guy on Grindr. He was talking to people and talking to people and then he’d flip over to Instagram and then to Snapchat, and then flip right back to Grindr. I thought: they’re always going to do that, but if I can give him something within the app so that he doesn’t have to leave it and can keep talking – that seems like a no-brainer! You always have the other channels, but it’s not like you ever feel there’s too much. What’s most interesting to me right now, is that it’s forced me really deep into a global look of what the gay world is. It’s so complicated. It’s not consistent from region to region, even state to state. There are still so many battles to be fought. Blending those things in a way that makes it palatable to people and gives them a way to take action is where I feel best about what we do. Whether that’s buying a book, attending a rally or clicking through to find out where they can get sexual health information in regions where people don’t really get that education.

This range of subjects is also visible on Grindr’s blog: there’s the Grindr Christmas gift guide, followed by a news story about a new feature in the app that allows users to communicate their HIV status more easily. It seems way more carefully thought through than it would be on most other platforms. Just the fact that you can’t use this information as a search tool –

Never. So important. We were looking at people’s profiles and saw that they’ve been changing their headlines to include what their status is over that last two years. Especially with the advent of PrEP [Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, the use of medication that prevents HIV transmission] and people becoming undetectable, sexual health is looking up in a way it hasn’t in decades. Since they’re talking about it, we wanted to provide them with a box, but one that is a personal choice. More than anything, we wanted them to be able to click through for more information. What does it mean to be undetectable? What does it mean to be on PrEP?

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Right. It’s important not to assume that people have had access to this information.

Especially when you talk about the people who are not in a major city. When you’re in a small town or even a place where you can’t be out, you can’t go ask your family doctor, because that family doctor often is a relative. So where are you going to find out about any of these terms? They’re just scary. To provide this information that easily is a huge relief for people.

And another way to relieve the stigma around it by making it a more routine part of conversation.

Then I think the next wave would be to also provide people with access to resources. So if you need to take the next step in your health care, how do you find a place that can give that to you? Make everything as turnkey as possible. In the regions where it’s still criminalized, the fight to decriminalize it is the next wave. Make it more universal. Human rights in general are important to us. As this stage in my life, I’m surprised we’re still having these conversations, but here we are. It’s part of what makes us human. We have to keep talking.

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Landis Smithers
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