A young man is crouched in the bushes at a local park. In front of him stands an older man, whose cold hairy hands are fumbling about in the other’s pants. This awkward encounter is cut short by the vibration of a smart phone. Suddenly the retro gay tropes melt away and the modern world floods in. In the first episode of Looking, the new HBO series about gay men set in San Francisco, cruising is no longer necessary. What has taken its place is vastly superior and revolutionary: the web.
This month the World Wide Web, the way by which we can access information on the Internet, celebrated its 25th birthday, making it about the same age as me. It’s hard to overestimate the impact the web has had on the world since its birth in 1989. It has transformed our experience of coming out and dating, made access to information and media almost universal and opened the door to a vast, endlessly diverse online community. For me, nothing else can compare to it for the positive impact it’s had on LGBT people’s lives.
As a group we begin our lives as isolated individuals, randomly scattered around the world, at the mercy of the circumstances we are born into. Statistically we will always be a minority in our offline networks: our families, workplaces and cities. Less people translates into less power, less presence and fewer opportunities to meet potential partners. The online world has changed all that. At its most revolutionary and simple, the web lets us form bigger groups and meet more people, making us more powerful. It also comes in handy when looking for someone to share your life with.
Campaigns for gay rights are now increasingly populist initiatives driven by sites such as allout.org amongst others, and LGBT interest stories have become part of mainstream online media thanks to sites like Buzzfeed. The net has made us more visible too, embedding our presence into everyday life. The option of anonymity, which message boards, blogs and chat rooms offer, also means we hear a larger and more diverse range of voices, from people who we might never have heard from otherwise.
It’s online that we first unashamedly explore our desires and it is online that many of us first come out. I vaguely remember setting up a profile on the Queer Youth Network when I was 15, and being surprised and elated that there were other gay people in my small town. Until I met my first friend from that site for real I had never knowingly met another gay person. Now we can see hundreds of LGBT people right there on our phones, not so far away at all.
Despite all these extremely positive aspects of the net, there has been a fierce debate in recent years about its influence on our lives. There have been claims that the net is making us lonelier, more sexually extreme, and worst of all, callously withdrawn from the people in our offline lives. The influence of porn on young people, the anti-social aspects of sites that purport to connect us like Facebook and Twitter, and the advent of apps like Grindr have caused moral panic, with alarmed commentators turning their noses up at our base online behaviour.
The stream of articles denigrating Grindr and other hook up apps that peaked about a year ago droned on about unwanted cock pics and indelicate questions, fearful that before we knew it we’d all end up as mere fleshy terminals at the end of the information superhighway. I think a lot of the reaction had more to do with the writers’ own discomfort with gay men’s supposed promiscuity and that nagging fear of being the last one left on the shelf.
I certainly see the need for a better form of online etiquette, some rules that put politeness back into the awkwardness of those ‘what u looking for’ openers, but I really have no time for those who want us to feel ashamed about our online activities. Why is there this wistful sense of nostalgia for the supposed glory days of bracing heath based frisking and drunken one-night stands? Was that world any less brutish? We are yearning after a kind of authenticity that never existed.
And the net is not making us lonelier, nor does it signal our inevitable metamorphosis into selfish soft machines. The net is a tool like any other; it’s just that the net is the most versatile tool ever created. What we do with it is up to us. It is not changing our most basic needs, or the desire most of us have to be in trusting, satisfying relationships. Behind every ill-advised cock pic and trolling comment is a human with a heart. It is our responsibility to remember that, and not blame our smartphone.
Sometimes I think of the net as a mirror, reflecting all the foibles of human nature. Other times I see it as an extra dimension, an actual place we can escape into. Increasingly it is integrated into every facet of our lives, exponentially expanding our capabilities. For LGBT people it has kick-started a period of exponential progress for equality, and we should pause to reflect on just how much it has changed our world.
In the next 25 years we need to realise that it is primarily a great force for good, talk openly about how to manage its temptations, and realise that it doesn’t change our universal need to be loved, just spells it out in bright letters on a billion smart phone screens.