Last week, Grindr announced its new incoming CEO, George Arison—a gay man who previously founded the online used-car marketplace Shift Technologies. Within days, Twitter users drew attention to tweets made by Arison from 2020 in which he expressed support for “some” of Trump’s policies and urged Democrats to lean conservative. A tweet in which Arison praised Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin—who recently drew ire for curtailing the rights of LGBTQ2S+ youth in his state—also surfaced.
I can’t guess at Arison’s politics beyond what he’s said publicly, but frankly, I don’t feel the need to. Though he’s only just assumed the position at Grindr, it is clear from Arison’s storied tech executive history on LinkedIn that he already has an advanced form of what I call “tech brain,” a condition that primarily impacts high-ranking members of tech companies and makes them spout gibberish about the free market, cancel culture, the merits of business deregulation and the joys of conservative tax policies. Many such cases.
Moments like this force us to confront an uncomfortable truth: tech executives, much like politicians, are good at throwing around big ideas about values, community and principles, but ultimately, any corporation’s only real obligation is to make money for its shareholders. In the case of Grindr, collecting your subscription dollars and ad clicks and exploiting user data is actually the primary reason it exists; your orgasms are entirely secondary. This remains the case with or without Arison and his conservative politics.
The fact that we’re being constantly surveilled, sold and sold to is disturbing on its face. But with the right marketing sheen and a tight enough algorithm, it can feel a lot like representation. Surveillance scholars Minna Ruckenstein and Julia Granroth write that consumers tend to simultaneously oppose intrusive advertising, but also appreciate feeling “seen” by a market that anticipates their wishes and satisfies their desire to be recognized and understood. This same experience was evident in the mid-2010s, when entire queer subcultures blossomed on Tumblr, only to be decimated entirely when the app started banning sexual content (a moderation decision that almost always means more restrictions on LGBTQ2S+ users). Just a few years later, the same ideas and aesthetics that once thrived among the queers on Tumblr are now being featured in corporate advertising and marketing.
To be sure, there’s cause for concern about the kind of damage that could be done by someone who—of his own admission—agrees with some of Trump’s policies (also, girl … which ones?) piloting one of the world’s most popular gay hookup apps. The views and visions of executive leadership inevitably trickle down into internal company practices and affect the end product. We’ve already seen Grindr tightening its belt in the last few months, for example, by pulling more and more features behind paywalls. But I doubt that we’re going to just wake up one day with a somehow more-racist version of the app than we’ve already got, just because of the company’s new CEO.
Arison assumed this role as part of the company’s upcoming initial public offering. By the end of the year, anyone with the cash to do it can invest in Grindr and become a shareholder, entitled to a small portion of its profits. Grindr is moving from a closed corporation—where shares, and therefore profits and decision-making power is held by a designated cohort—to a public one, where it can be traded publicly on the open stock market. It makes sense that the company is preparing for this shift by putting a business-friendly face at the helm, i.e., someone who can make conservatives comfortable and attract right-wing capital that might otherwise be turned off by a gay-branded business. If we’re going to see any changes to Grindr’s user experience, it will much more likely be the result of the company going public and chasing wider (straighter) investment funds than of bringing Arison on board.
This distinction is important, because it allows us to see not only Arison’s new role in context, but also to recognize the larger forces at play here. Trickle-down ideology aside, no company is ever the product of a single individual. The kind of social conservatism that Grindr’s new CEO expresses and represents is a necessary product of the kind of fiscal conservatism embodied by the market itself. Some degree of reproach for marginalized communities is actually required in order to succeed as a large and profitable company (Grindr’s valuation is estimated at $2.1 billion). With queerness as an identity that is becoming increasingly valuable as both a market share and marketing tactic, it’s unsurprising that an ostensibly gay company would pick an overtly conservative person as its chief executive officer. Investors need to be able to trust in someone at the helm who can reliably make them money. Who better than someone with a stated commitment to profit over all else? It’s not personal, baby, it’s just capitalism.
Grindr has become the de facto means for many queer people to meet and fuck new people, a door into local community, so much so that we can often find ourselves forgetting that its primary object is to sell ads and collect user information. We sometimes get alerted to this when Grindr does something particularly stupid and profit-seeking, like the introduction of some new paid feature or the elimination of a free one (Why can’t I see who viewed me anymore? I didn’t even ask for this feature to begin with, and now I have to pay for it? What gives?). Our experience of the real world is mediated by tech companies that are created and motivated in the interest of making money. Yet thousands of people rely on them every day—to get around, to talk to friends and to get laid. It’s a weird balance.
The problem with Grindr, and with so many of these tech companies in general, is that despite being profit-seeking businesses run by a small pool of appointed rich people, they often feel like public infrastructure. But of course, they’re not: even as tech platforms brand themselves as hubs of commerce, community, culture and connection, users are ultimately restricted in what they can share and consume by what is legible and profitable for the corporation and its rules—whether those rules are terms of service that paradoxically treat antiracist speech as “hate speech,” or overarching sectoral policies like FOSTA-SESTA.
Apps like Grindr effectively insert themselves into our everyday lives in part by peddling the notion that they are enabling—rather than profiting off—a wider, shared user community. The notion of a “queer community,” with some kind of common identity, is core to selling the idea of Grindr to both users and shareholders. In this view, there is a designated audience for Grindr’s product, with generalizable traits and tendencies, whose data can be collected and resold to advertisers down the road, and whose commitment to paying in can be relied upon as guaranteed revenue. It’s for this reason that we got stuff like Grindr video content, the initial marketing and tone of the digital magazine Into, which was once owned by the app, and even even its meme-obsessed social media presence; Grindr parties, merchandise, sponsorships, PSAs and so on.
It’s worth reflecting on the kind of social, community-making work that has been downloaded onto corporate actors like Grindr, Twitter or Instagram, as our real-life social worlds continue to shrink due to higher rents, harsher policing and hardline right-wing policies that all bear heavily on IRL queer communities. With queerness as an identity that is becoming increasingly legible, marketable and profitable, we should all be critical about the way that capitalist entities have managed to sell the experience of community back to us, despite profiting off our backs.
In this light, the hiring of Arison as Grindr’s new, conservative CEO should alert us to a fact that feels both novel and obvious every time it arises: these corporations are not our friends. They don’t represent our values, and it’s not their job to. As long as companies are free to represent themselves as part of a market-oriented community branded on the premise of its supposed queerness without actually representing the wider queer community in their decision-making or operations, they will continue to disappoint us.
Editor’s Note: Xtra Magazine is owned by Pink Triangle Press, which also operates Squirt.org, a gay hook up site.