Reckless associations can do very real harm when they appear in supposedly neutral environments like online stores
As I was installing Grindr on my Android phone yesterday, I scrolled down to take a look at the list of "related" and "relevant" applications. My jaw dropped. There, first on the list, was "Sex Offender Search," a free application created by Life360 that lets you "find sex offenders near you and protect your child ... so you can keep your family safe."
I was flabbergasted. How and why was this association being made? What could one application have to do with other? How many potential Grindr users were dissuaded from downloading the application because they saw this listed as a related application? In essence: Who did this linking, how does it work, and what harm is it doing?
For those who don't know, Grindr describes itself as a "simple, fast, fun, and free way to find and meet gay, bi and curious guys for dating, socializing, and friendship." It's one of an emerging set of location-based technologies targeted at gay men looking to socialize, where "socialize" can mean a wide variety of things, including chatting, hooking up to have sex or developing a friendship. You start up the app and immediately see how close other users are and some information about them.
Grindr isn't unique or new in this respect. Manhunt, Jack'd, Scruff and Maleforce all have iPhone or Android apps, and sites like GayRomeo.com, Adam4Adam.com and gaydar.co.uk have been letting gay/bi/curious men filter user profiles by geographic location for years. Such sites, applications, and the practices they make possible are becoming almost downright mainstream: Sharif Mowlabocus wrote a whole book on what he calls "Gaydar Culture"; Online Buddies (the makers of Manhunt) partners with academics to conduct innovative world-wide research on online gay male practices; and Grindr CEO Joel Simkhai was a panelist this year at SXSW Interactive.
Bizarre links between Grindr and Sex Offender Search can be great starting points for those who recognize nonsensical associations. But what about those who don't?
So if all of this is becoming so seemingly mainstream, why is it being linked to sex offenders?
To answer the first question of who made this association between Grindr and Sex Offender Search: it is those who design and maintain the Android Marketplace, the Droid's version of Apple's App Store. To be fair, Apple has had its own struggles deciding what kinds of apps to sell: for a while it rejected a cartoon app created by Pulitzer Prize-winning Mark Fiore because it "ridiculed public figures"; and it recently deleted an app designed by a religious group to "cure" gay people. The problem of deciding what to sell through the app store is not new. But we're far from fully understanding the ethical obligations that Apple, Google and others have when their platforms act as de facto regulators of free speech.
The second question -- how was this association made -- is harder to answer. Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook don't make public the systems and algorithms they use to create relationships among data. Is the Android Marketplace noticing a large overlap between those who download Grindr and those who install Sex Offender Search? This seems unlikely given their two very different target audiences.
Was this an editorial decision made by a human curator of the Marketplace who thought the two applications were somehow related? This curious choice would say more about the curator than the applications.
Does some part of the system consider the applications' Marketplace categories -- "Social" for Grindr and "Lifestyle" for Sex Offenders Search -- so similar that it thinks users would be interested seeing connections between the categories? This is plausible but there are many other applications in both categories that might be linked -- why these two?
Finally, are terms the application creators themselves use to describe their programs considered similar through some automatic keyword matching algorithm? Sex Offender Search lists these key words: sex offender search, sex offenders, megan's law, megan law, child molesters, sexual predators, neighborhood safety, criminals, Life360, Life 360. The description of Grindr lists no keywords but says that it "only allows males 18 years or older" to download the application and that "[p]hotos depicting nudity or sex acts are strictly prohibited." The only word common to both applications is "sex." But the word "sex" also appears in Deep Powder Software's "Marine Biology" application. It's hard to see the overlap among these three applications yet, for some reason, the Marketplace thinks the most relevant application to Grinder is Sex Offender Search.
The last question -- what harm are such associations doing -- is more complicated to answer. Associations like those listed in the Android Marketplace (or Apple's Genius system, Amazon's recommendation engine or Bing's search suggestions) can be starting points for good conversation or chilling silencers of individual expression and community identity. To be starting points for conversation, designers must first acknowledge that recommendation systems (both those that are run by humans and those relying upon algorithms) have the power to suggest and constrain expression. Bizarre links between Grindr and Sex Offender Search can be great starting points for those who are privileged enough to recognize nonsensical associations, possess enough technical knowledge to understand how such systems might make links, and have the confidence and communication skills to argue the point with friends, family members and others. These can be great opportunities to debunk bad thinking that would otherwise go unchallenged.