“People fundamentally have a lot of shame around hooking up,” explains digital developer and entrepreneur Carl Sandler. “We live in a culture that teaches us that to hook up with someone is bad.”
Recently, Tinder came under even more scrutiny after Vanity Fair cited the already much maligned dating app as contributing to something called “the dating apocalypse.” What’s not surprising is that a general interest magazine article employed anecdotal evidence and confirmation bias to denounce casual sex in 2015—or, as Albert Brooks’ Broadcast News character acerbically put it in 1987, “blew the lid off nookie.” What is considerably more confounding is that Tinder, in a rush to defend itself soon after the article was published, did so by desperately stressing that the app also helps people find “meaningful connections” resulting in a “shit-ton of marriages.”
“So, you can justify hooking up—for some people—because it’s a path toward finding a stable, romantic partner, finding love,” Sandler continues. “Then hooking up is really just part of the process of getting to the end goal which is finding that one partner that you’ll be with for the rest of your life. That’s the story.”
Call me naive (Sandler thinks I am) but I was shocked to find that there is still so much stigma against very commonplace heteronormative NSA boning. Personally, I’m terrible at one night stands, but I have gone on dates the sole purpose of which were to practice tying my partner up. I had to wonder what it must be like for any app trafficking in even more taboo forms of human interaction. Which is why I called Sandler in the first place.
Back before the mobile apocalypse, Sandler founded the website DaddyHunt.com, which he later developed into a dating application. He did so in order to provide a safe space for what he felt was an embattled community. “We realized that older gay guys needed a place where they could connect to younger gay guys that were interested in them and other older gay guys without fear and judgement,” he says. “There’s a lot of ageism in the gay community.”
Now, Sandler is getting ready to build another virtual playland for another group coming out from under the radar. “The kink community is where the gay community was maybe fifteen years ago,” he says. “People are finally starting to embrace and come out as kinky without shame, but I think it’s a relatively new phenomenon.” To help that community emerge, Sandler’s company is set to launch the beta version of its newest app, KNKI, this September.
For the record, it’s not that new of a phenomenon. I found out about the KNKI launch perusing the kink community website Fetlife. Fettle seems to have a massive user base, but their app is shit. Recently, Whiplr, another kink-courting app launched, predating KNKI by several months. But I’ve played with Whiplr and it merely feels like Tinder in leather chaps. Sandler claims that his app will be more ambitious, more expansive. “We’re trying to create a place for lifestylers,” says Sandler. “We’re trying to create a place that’s as diverse and rich as the kinky community—from BDSM to poly to gender play. We’re building all these features that aren’t just hook-up app features. A lot of them are about social networking. They’re about allowing people to use the platform to build their own communities.”
If all this sounds more like Facebook than Tinder, that’s because it is meant to be. In building the DaddyHunt app and, now, in developing KNKI, Sandler’s company has mimicked many of the sharing features that have worked so successfully for the larger, general interest social networking entities. Partly, that’s out of practicality. Unlike many apps who have a symbiotic relationship with Facebook, Sandler’s products are not allowed to flourish in the shadow of the Zuckerberg Empire. “I can tell you officially that Facebook will not allow DaddyHunt.com to be advertised within their network,” he says, not wanting to go too deep into it for fear of pissing off the giant. “Facebook has a tremendous amount of restrictions on advertisers, and especially for gay advertisers.”
But what works for Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter can also work for DaddyHunt or KNKI. “People can follow people,” says Sandler, “They can have hashtags, they can find people with common interests, they can share content, and upload photos that aren’t just profile photos.” And, in the case of those who prefer a more private user experience, those features are more valuable within a more closed network. “Facebook is getting so big that people don’t want to share their whole lives where their mom or their boss is going to see what they’re doing. People are censoring themselves on Facebook.” The same goes for dating apps that have a sprawling user base. “You risk exposing yourself publicly if you go to Tinder or OkCupid and start talking about all your fetishes.”
It is worth pointing out that Carl Sandler, who is 43, does not believe that any of this is ideal. He has friends who have two different profiles on Facebook, one with a fake last name so that none of their shirtless pictures show up in the office. He thinks this is sad.
“It’s funny. I used to see people on Match.com,” he says. “They would say, on their profile, I’m looking for love, I want a boyfriend, they want all these different things—very romantic. And then I’d see them on a hook-up app and what they said was completely different, as if they were two different people. I don’t subscribe to that. I want and I am available to both those things. People are complex. They want to hook up. They want love.”
Often, we want both these things during the same period in our lives, sometimes during the same week. Sandler also believes that all people are kinky, at least to some degree. In a more tolerant world, none of this—neither the desire to have a one night stand nor the need to wear a squirrel costume during coitus—would be a source of shame. But that’s not where Sandler sells apps. “For niche communities to thrive,” he says, “they need to have privacy because the world is a very judgmental place. If you’re into kinks, I think that most people want to be in a place where they feel like they can share and have communities and have a sense of belonging and support—whatever—whether they want to hook up, whether they want to make friends, or build networks.”
What I find most compelling about Sandler’s mission is that, in designing such niche applications, he never diminishes or devalues any individual’s right to use his products to simply meet-fuck. Nor does he aggressively champion such motives. What he emphasizes most often is the idea of giving people the tools to build communities. Communities are significant, potentially powerful groupings of society. Regardless of what they are organized around, they often allow people to feel connected, to feel engaged, and encouraged to act and live proudly. In that respect, I’d prefer to see a few strong communities spring from a dating app than a shit-ton of marriages.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]