Torso Junkie

Unlike the bare-chested men they imitate, Grindr spambots have no “preferences” and no problem liking you

Mere minutes after downloading Grindr, I got my first message from a spambot. His name was Herbert. I don’t quite remember what he looked like, aside from the vague outlines: garden variety muscles, pectorals glazed in oil, cropped blond hair.

His first missive to me — “hey what’s up” — arrived in the middle of my workday. At first I reacted with the tickled glee of a schoolchild, reduced to my laziest impulses. I’d never been spoken to with such curt, blasé ease, especially by a man who seemed likely to call himself a “bro.” He appeared to exemplify an ideal of male attractiveness — corn-fed white male, a football player turned frat star — that I’d positioned as aspirational yet long abandoned chasing. It had taken me years to make peace with the fact that by virtue of my brown skin, I would never pique the sexual interest of a man like Herbert.

Yet something about the possibility of this abstract lump of testosterone, on this digital platform of uncharted frontiers, temporarily stymied that hard-earned understanding. I’ve hooked up with a truckload of white men whose faces I don’t remember, I told myself. Perhaps Herbert would be another.

After a few moments of reverie, I abruptly realized that Herbert wasn’t meant to be. The tipoff was that his listed height: two foot four. Nothing about his photograph suggested dwarfism, but clearly something was amiss.

I would soon learn that Grindr was crawling with digital parasites of Herbert’s ilk, overrun with a flurry of spambots who usually manifest as low-res photos of chiseled, nondescript-looking white men. They often have anomalous heights under three feet, a glitch that owes itself to an apparent technical flaw. They also have tribal affiliations of “twink” or “bear” listed on their profile pages that are wildly incongruous with their lean appearances. They tend to go by perplexingly vanilla names — Herbert, Everett, Edmund, Arden — that carry no hint, or threat, of exoticism. (I’ve come across no explanation for these milquetoast “all-American” names.) The aesthetic they embody is one that’s all but ubiquitous in gay porn and, consequently, a good number of gay men’s sexual goalpost.

These bots are engineered to circumvent the app’s lax verification procedures. Grindr does not require the use of serial numbers to identify profiles unique to people’s phones, and the captcha required upon signup is easy to bypass. They are created with dime-a-dozen chatbot software that is freely available online, generating scripts that are then repurposed to create fake profiles. These profiles are outfitted with photos of men who resemble Herbert. The photos are run-of-the-mill mirror selfies. They’re of men who have broad shoulders and six packs, their faces largely obscured by the camera flash; they may as well be headless. They are usually scantily clad, wearing boxer briefs and little else, and their torsos remain the focus of the images. They are white.

Grindr’s spambots are somewhat instructive; they show us how we humans might elude one another’s defenses, too. The bots talk to me as if I were white

Spambots are curious bits of software. Spam, by principle, takes something inherently unwanted and multiplies it; a bot connotes a certain semblance of intelligence and order. The spambot is the lovechild of these two principles, an ungainly hybrid of automated disagreeability.

On Grindr, this manifests as a generic, seemingly nonthreatening hotness. Few users, after all, would see such delicately sculpted torsos and ascribe horror to them. In both their aesthetic and their vocabulary, spambots adhere to an ostensibly universal lexicon of what is considered desirable enough to activate any gay man’s libido. This makes them resemble countless other sentient men on the app. It grants them a momentarily plausible camouflage. The threat the spambots pose is presumed to disappear in some lowest common denominator of whiteness.

Spambots are not native to Grindr — in fact, they’re ubiquitous on dating apps. There’s speculation that on other apps like Tinder or the late Ashley Madison, the spambots are a careful inside job to fluff up site metrics. It’s not clear if that’s the Grindr spambots’ purpose; their endgame is to coax you into following shady webcam links, often saddled with names bordering on parody, like MyPassionPit or GaySliceCrush, that install viruses onto your phone. But regardless of their ultimate aims, these spambots tend to work the same. When they initiate conversations, the language they speak is restrained and economical, lacking much in the way of punctuation and confined to lowercase. They’re far from debonair; they stumble their way through basic flirtation. They will begin with some permutation of “how are u stud,” and no matter how swiftly you respond, if you respond, they will always say back, “wow that was quick.” That is as far as their emotional intelligence goes.

Say what you will about chatbots, but they don’t discriminate. They will message anyone. From one remove, there’s something to appreciate here, at least in my own experience. I wasn’t taken in so far as to end up with a virus at Herbert’s hands, but I was intrigued. The bot’s race-blind approach opened a window onto a particular kind of come-on that I hadn’t experienced. If Grindr implicitly promises a kind of inclusive universe, a fantasy in which the sexual playing field is leveled with respect to all the isms otherwise rife in our social landscape, then Herbert may be that utopia’s oddly inarticulate emissary.

Grindr is known for enabling some undesirable tendencies within the gay community to flourish without consequence: It is a platform where casual racism is part of common parlance. This has been written about repeatedly, in pieces about the perils of gay dating when you feel you can’t bid for the same sexual attention distributed to the real-life Herberts of the world. On Grindr there’s a certain lionization of white male beauty, reinforced through profile proclamations like “no fats/no fems/no Asians,” under the tawdry excuse that “it’s just a preference.” Rather than admit that these preferences may have cultural origins, they’ll instead insist that they are somehow conceived and contained in a vacuum from the ferment around them. The dick is an organ separate from the brain, they’ll claim. (I enjoy the minor privilege of minute white ancestry, and so I’ve dodged such outright discrimination by listing myself as mixed rather than purely Indian.)

But such arguments collapse upon closer inspection. Aren’t sexual preferences directly informed by the beauty standards we’re ambushed with since birth? Against this backdrop, spambots seem to flirt with the possibility of neutralizing those standards for gay men of color like me. Spambots elude the defenses of both systems (Grindr) and people (users). As such, the spambots are somewhat instructive; they show us how we humans might elude one another’s defenses, too. They offer a mirage of a world in which I can jockey for the same attention that is usually afforded only to white men, to people who don’t look much like me. They speak the same universal language of fast, easy utilitarianism geared toward sex to everyone, including me. The bots talk to me as if I were white.

In the year I’ve had Grindr in New York City, I’ve grown desperately bored with it. It began as a whimsical way to seek attention and then tend to it. Never before had I received such an outpouring of effusive flattery in 10-minute intervals, and I can now claim thousands of unread messages as some kind of personal achievement. Over time, though, the faces I saw became the same, congealing into an undifferentiated mass. The messages followed suit in their uniformity, drawing me closer to catatonia. The prospect of physically moving my body to see any of these conversationally disengaged prospects seemed insurmountably exhausting, if not impossible. In other words, they had become indistinguishable from spambots.

The presence of spambots on Grindr may seem of little consequence, minor annoyances to scroll past. But their proliferation is emblematic of the platform’s lax, hands-off approach to community management. It has continually dodged accountability and deflected responsibility for the spores that grow on its platform, seeing user behavior as a moral gray area it chooses not to “police.” This is most apparent in its neglecting to confront the various forms of discrimination that are rampant on the platform.

Never before had I received such an outpouring of effusive flattery, which over time congealed into an undifferentiated mass. They had become indistinguishable from spambots

Spambots, though evocative of Grindr’s negligence, also offer a temporary Band-aid to its discrimination problem. They are uniquely indiscriminate, possessed of an uncommon willingness to message anyone — literally anyone. The spambot has no “preferences.” As such, it fosters the illusion that human discrimination is being done away with on the platform. The bot embodies an inclusive attitude in an ingratiating white physique without any of the ugliness that lifelong privilege tends to engender.

Isn’t this how we always imagined bots? Bots theoretically promise that they’ll remove the friction inherent in human relations. They overwrite that timeworn dictum that human behavior is inherently messy or contradictory or complex or any other euphemism for “conflictual” and scrub that proverbial mess clean. This is the idea behind, say, the elder-care robot. Among humans, elder care can test the limits of patience and empathy. The care robot is meant to eliminate these problems.

This rose-tinted view of bots fits with the persistent belief that apps, by their nature, transcend existing social prejudices. A cabdriver may zoom past me, imagining I’m a terrorist, but a ride-sharing app like Uber uses algorithms to take the decisions out of drivers’ hands. This doesn’t exactly chip away at structural racism or the philosophies undergirding it, though. It offers a merely procedural fix while the prejudices continue to fester.

Over the past few months, Grindr’s place in my life has shifted from one of pragmatic utility — I need a face to sit on, and stat! — to something of an emotional crutch. How can I nurse my crippling insecurities that have only intensified in my 24 years on this dumb planet? I ask myself. What keeps me on Grindr is the simple fact that the app’s men deliver daily messages of gratification to me that do a great deal to repair my battered sense of self-worth.

When it comes to dating, scammers have a history of preying upon the weak and vulnerable: the elderly, the widowed, the disabled, who are often overtaken by a clinging need to be wanted. Their judgment defers to desire. It’s no surprise, then, that these aspects of human behavior — these insecurities and the willingness to exploit them — have become engineered into our machines.

Who does the Grindr spambot prey upon? There’s no hard data to attest to this, but what I’ve gleaned anecdotally through conversations and Google searches is that anyone can fall for their whims, no matter their racial or socioeconomic stratum. The desperation for human contact does not discriminate.

Anyone can fall for Grindr spambots’ whims, no matter their racial or socioeconomic stratum. The desperation for human contact does not discriminate

Had my self-esteem been where it was five years ago, perhaps I would have fallen victim too. I try to place myself in that seconds-long mind-set I was in after Herbert messaged me, and the fantasies it let me entertain. A fever dream I’ve harbored since childhood sprung to life — the notion that my thick eyebrows, my very Bengali nose, my light-brown eyes would calcify into the normative standard of white male beauty I so valorized growing up. In that moment, I could imagine how I could become a universally understood object of desire.

It’s awfully difficult to train yourself out of such a mentality, even after the experiences of adulthood start to claw at you. These ailments don’t disappear so much as dim with the passage of time. The process of making insecurities disappear takes inordinate amounts of patience. I’ve settled with acknowledging that I’m simply an acquired taste.

As my usage of Grindr has wound down in the past few months, I’ve stopped paying much attention to the men who message me. These human spambots represent the kind of man I’ve made a habit of resisting, part of a demographic I’ve given up on as a principled form of protest. But if I get another spambot message, I’ll probably think for a moment of writing back. It’s an entry into a world I’ll never quite know.

Mayukh Sen is a writer who lives in New York. He has written for New York magazine, VicePitchforkthe Fader, and elsewhere.