Last week, INTO first reported that the President of Grindr, Scott Chen, created a Facebook post where he defined marriage as a “holy matrimony between a man and a woman.” Initial reports — including here on OUT.com — went wide with the story, deducing that Chen was, effectively, saying he was against gay marriage. (After all, how many of us have heard well-meaning straight folks say they’re ok with gay people, but think marriage is taking it a little too far?)
Chen commented on INTO’s story (awkward, considering Grindr owns INTO), accusing the report of using a shoddy translation and, thus, misinterpreting his words. “The reason I said marriage is a holy matrimony between a man and a woman is based on my own personal experience,” he continued, including a claim that he’s been an “advocate for LGBTQ rights” since he was young.
Regardless of Chen’s intention — or, for that matter, his true beliefs on gay marriage or LGBTQ equality — a national spotlight was shed for perhaps the first time on the straight man who owns Grindr, a gay dating and hookup app.
Chen has his foil in Eric Silverberg, the openly gay co-founder and CEO of the privately-owned dating app, Scruff. (Grindr announced in August that it has plans to go public.) We took a moment to chat with Eric about what he considers the issues with Grindr that go far beyond its President’s views on gay marriage.
Phillip Picardi: First and foremost, can you tell me how you felt when the news surfaced about the President of Grindr’s remarks on gay marriage?
Eric Silverberg: It's obviously very disappointing...I believe the words that he specifically used were that he believed marriage was a holy matrimony between a man and a woman. What that implies and what that leads one to infer is that he believes that gay marriage is different from — and somehow lesser than — a straight marriage. As a private citizen or an employee, you certainly have your right to your private beliefs, but when a leader in the gay community says these things, they're disrespecting the decades-long work of marriage equality activists, and I think more ominously, they're giving credibility and oxygen to far-right politicians who continue to try and undermine these rights that we really just recently won.
PP: What do you know about the owners of Grindr?
ES: I know that today, Grindr is entirely owned by a Chinese company. I think what this whole incident shines a light on is just how important the identity and personal beliefs of the tech company leaders really are in 2018. To me, this story fits in with a broader pattern that we’re seeing, whether it's the censorship that Google is doing in China, Facebook and their election interference, or Twitter and the rampant harassment that continues unabated on their platform today. This is another instance that speaks to how important the personal beliefs of the leaders of these companies: When your personal beliefs are not in alignment with the community that you're serving, it can lead you to make choices with very significant and sometimes very harmful decisions for that community. To bring it back to Grindr, they chose to sell or to give away HIV data of their members to advertisers. You have to ask yourself, "Had that community been owned by a company or led by a company that had gay men at the helm or queer men and women at the helm, would they have made the same decision and been able to perceive the consequences to their community a bit better?" That’s why I'm proud that Scruff is a gay-owned business.
PP: Tell me more about how Scruff pursues a business model, and I guess an approach to technology, that's different from some of the tech companies you mentioned.
ES: There's a trope running around Silicon Valley right now that tech executives don't use the products that they're building...or that they don't allow their families or children to use the products that they are building. We here at Scruff absolutely do. That manifested in the decision we made this year to get rid of all programmatic advertising from our app, and to forgo any kind of data integration with Facebook. We're the only gay app — and I believe we are the only dating app, or certainly the only major dating app — who can stand here today and say that. We do not share the data of our members with third-party companies.
PP: Can you explain what programmatic advertising is, in plain speak?
ES: We ripped out banner ads. The banner ads, they're terrible, they look bad. They're annoying, they're scammy, they're spamming. They're extracting data about you and shuttling it all over the internet.
PP: So why are they called "programmatic?" Can you explain a little bit about the philosophy of programmatic — as in, how they're served to users on the internet?
ES: Any time you see a banner ad in an app, what happens is data about you — be it your location, your sexuality, or the app you’re on — is essentially shuttled out of the app and into something that resembles a stock exchange. In that instant, you have advertisers who are bidding on that impression. These advertisers want their ads to reach different people, and some of them want to specifically reach gay men. In this kind of real-time moment that resembles a stock exchange, advertisers see that you're using, in this case, Grindr. They can see that, and they can run an ad they think is appropriate to show you.
This phenomenon was sold to us in the early days as a way to show people more relevant ads. Well, the issue now is that data doesn't just stop with the advertisers anymore — you can easily envision scenarios where that data about your usage of Grindr includes your listed HIV status. In theory, let’s say a health insurer could see that, bid in that moment, and could hold onto that data and then later use it to ratchet up your premium.
Now, that's a very scary and — arguably — dystopian scenario. But it's one that's become increasingly discussed and is part of the reason why the European government passed a very strict privacy law this year. Their law is called GDPR, and it informed Scruff’s decision this year to have nothing to do with this whole system, because it was the right thing to do for our community.
Editor’s Note: When reached for comment about programmatic advertising, a spokesperson for Grindr offered the following: “User privacy is and always will be one of our top priorities at Grindr. Grindr has never sold nor will we ever sell personal user information to third parties or advertisers. We are a platform that listens to and is made for our community, and we continue to look for ways to strengthen how we protect our users’ privacy. It is also worth noting that our primary revenue stream is through subscriptions.” While there is no proof that the app has “sold” user data, the New York Times reported in April of this year on Grindr “sharing users’ H.I.V. status, sexual tastes and other intimate personal details.” Shortly thereafter, Grindr “said it would stop sharing H.I.V. data with outside companies.”
PP: Do you believe in good faith the claims that Grindr made back in April, that they were actually going to stop allowing advertisers to receive access to users' HIV statuses?
ES: I think every gay man who chooses to use Grindr should look at the facts and should look at their history of decision-making. I think that people have very good reason to be deeply skeptical of that company in particular... There is a reckoning coming for all of these technology companies and platforms that are making business decisions without considering [their] moral implications.
PP: In that sense, it's interesting that Grindr has been running a campaign called "Kindr," or other social awareness campaigns that have been trying to shed a spotlight on members of the community who are typically disenfranchised on the platform. This kind of dating discrimination or sexual discrimination that happens on Grindr is certainly not unique to them; it also happens on Scruff. What kind of initiatives are you guys working on to make sure that Scruff is a safer place in the same way that Grindr has?
ES: I am pleased that our industry, more broadly, is shining a light on the issue of racism and sexual discrimination. I think if you look closely at what Grindr announced back in September, you will note that there are no actual differences in the app from the day before to the day after. Scruff, from the very beginning, has taken a very aggressive approach to moderating our community, which is why the instances of that kind of full-throated and egregious discrimination — so we’ve heard from our community — is much less common than it is on other platforms. That doesn't mean that there isn't more we can do, which is why this year, Scruff became the first gay dating app, and I believe possibly the first just overall dating app, to actually remove ethnicity as a default from our profile. When you launch Scruff right now today, ethnicity is not listed on any profile. It can still be included if you choose to as a member, but it is not listed by default. I can tell you that that change has been well-received by our community, and there have been no negative repercussions thus far, but we didn't just stop there. We have also been analyzing profiles here in the United States that include racial language, both "I don't date" and "I only date..." We've heard from our members that this kind of language can feel hurtful and exclusionary. We've started looking at our profiles that include this kind of language and begun some initial tests where we actually send in-app notifications to profiles that include racial language and invite them to take a moment and to consider how that language affects other people. It's not a warning — we do not imply that they have violated anything. It really is about taking a moment to consider the ramifications of your words in the same way that a close friend of yours, a brother or a sister, might when they see you perhaps saying something carelessly.
Editor’s Note: A Grindr spokesperson notes that “Kindr” is “a serious and important step to address issues in [the] community...built on education, awareness, and specific policy changes in the Grindr App.” They added: “In addition to Kindr, we revamped our user reporting process in the app. It aims at educating users on behaviors that are not allowed within our platform, and it makes it easier for users to submit reports. We are also actively working to update our new user onboarding experience which will guide new members through their first steps of using Grindr, highlighting the importance of positive behavior when communicating with others in our platform.”
PP: So you said, just to clarify, that you guys don't send a warning, but it's more of an invitation for them to reconsider language used in their profiles. Does that mean that any racially exclusive language used on the platform is technically not a violation of your Terms and Conditions?
ES: So our Terms and Conditions are very clear that if you use language that is threatening, harassing, or discriminatory, we absolutely can and do take action to warn you and potentially remove the language or suspend the profile. We do it all it the time. I just also want to be clear: We regularly enforce those policies, okay? We have made a very concrete product decision by removing ethnicity as a default option, and we are also trying to use our platform to encourage more conversation so that as a community, we can figure out the kind of world we want to live in.
PP: I imagine you have community managers who review these things. Is that right?
ES: So we absolutely have a global support team, many of whom actively use our app, who are reviewing this 24/7 365, especially Christmas and Thanksgiving because we have a lot of usage then, but we also use technology. We're a software company at our core. We use technology to enable this as well, and we've been using more technology to enable us to manage not only this issue but also spammers, bots, you name it. Another critical input to this is our community. To that point, I would just say that unlike these other tech platforms that have really abdicated responsibility, and certainly at Grindr; they're like, "We’ll just flag the profile and deal with it," our support team sees the moral responsibility of what they are doing and follows up with all of the feedback that we get. We follow up on the harassment flags. If you open a ticket with Scruff, we put that front and center in the app. It is easier to reach Scruff Support than any other support team on the internet. I believe that 100%, and we follow up within 48 and typically within 24 hours of every single request that we get.
PP: And your support team is comprised of people of color as well as white folks?
ES: Yes. It's very important to us that we get a diversity of perspectives and opinions in our app and in our support team.
PP: In your opinion, why is Grindr so big? Can you provide any context to their kind of growing success?
ES: They were first on the market. They were simply first to market. Full stop.
PP: I imagine that some of the VC funding that they've received, including this acquisition in China, has only helped them, and that's a different road than you've taken.
ES: No, I think it's actually going to be an albatross around their neck. At the end of the day, I believe this not just in our competition with them, but in our competition with all of the social platforms that people use: VC funding and the investor funding that they have received is leading them down a very, very dangerous and toxic path. It's causing them to be tone deaf to the business decisions that they're making and will ultimately undermine their users' confidence in their platform. I believe the fact that Scruff is a privately-held company that has never received any outside funding is an advantage to us and will become an increasing advantage to us because it enables us to 100% stand behind the decisions that we make. It enables us to make difficult decisions, like ripping out banner ads. When we did that, we lost money overnight. Scruff just cut off a revenue stream. If we were a publicly-held company, if we had received VC funding, we could've never done that. I would've been fired the next day! But it was the right decision to make for our community.
PP: What are your hopes for Scruff, especially in the wake of these revelations about Grindr's president?
ES: My hopes for the gay community and for our country and our online world truly are that people become more aware of the apps that they use, and really hold their companies and their leaders to the standards that they always should've been held to. We have been too enamored, I think, by the novelty of the technology, and I do believe that over time, people become smarter consumers. When users expect more of the products that they use, consume, or interact with, the companies get better.