Why does Android marketplace link apps for gay men and apps for sex offenders?


Mike Ananny, a postdoctoral scholar at Microsoft Research and fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, writes in the Atlantic about a strange Android app discovery:

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?

(via danah boyd)


  1. It’s by the tags that developers assign to the apps. The word ‘sex’ is probably a tag used in both the Grindr app and the sex offender registry app.

    But to answer the other questions: 0 users were dissuaded. Who did the linking? The system does the linking by the tags associated. What harm: None, nobody who goes to install Grindr: The World’s Largest All-Male Location Based Social Network is going to see “related apps: sex offender list” and then think that the men on a separate app are sex offenders.

  2. Probably just a bad keyword association, both apps contain sex related themes. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be just an automatic search association, as there is no big difference for a machine between “find a sex partner” and “find a sex offender”.

    1. They’re not “sex related”, they’re “locating people related”. People get outraged when they think that the “gay men” part of one program must somehow be related to the “sex offender” part of another even though they have no relevance.

  3. Was the sex offender app also next to the Catholic priest finder app and the Senator/Congressman app?

  4. Also in related apps for grindr – wireless tether, a 20 Questions guessing game, a few messaging apps, a camera app.

    Based on the fact that this is google, I think we can safely assume the bulk of these categorizations are done by an algorithm. How is this guy unaware of that? He mentions it in the article, but attempts to dismiss it, but what about this: they both have sex in their keywords and they both use geolocation to identify people nearby. Add those to the likelihood that some users have installed both, and you have a connection. Granted, a very unfortunate one, but a real one none the less.

  5. “Who did the linking?” This reminds me of a middle-aged person I knew who felt sorry for all the “little old ladies Google must pay to type in all the results.” Anyone who has any idea how Google (or Amazon or whatever) works knows that this is a completely silly question.

    A “postdoctoral scholar at Microsoft Research” obviously knows better than that. Is this just bashing a competitor’s product? If so, BoingBoing’s been had.

  6. I’m thinking this is a bit historical and knee jerk. Just as likely straight targeted apps of the same nature would ave the same “related apps” recommendations. I wouldn’t be surprised if any searching for specific types of people style app would do the same.

  7. Yeah that should read “hysterical” rather than historical head colds and spell checks don’t mix.

  8. One app helps you “find sex”*, the other helps you “find sex offenders.” I’d be more surprised if Android had an algorithm that DIDN’T think those two things sounded like they were related somehow.

    *even if it was something more like “find someone of your same sexual orientation,” or had words like homesexual or bisexual, you still have quite a bit of overlap in “sex” keywords.

    I bet if you google the towns of Hooker, Dildo, or Intercourse, you’ll get some pretty weird results too. Its not always easy for algorithms to contextualize keywords, resulting in some unfortunate associations.

  9. Strange, it doesn’t list it for me on the market website. My list of related apps to Grindr are:
    SCRUFF Gay Guys Worldwide
    Adam4Adam Radar Gay Dating GPS
    gay men’s social net: Jack’d
    Maleforce Gay Chat, Gay Video

    It doesn’t list Grindr as a related app to Sex Offender Search either.

    I’d check on my phone, but I left it in the car and I’m too lazy to go get it right now.

    More importantly it doesn’t show Sex Offender Search when you search for “gay sex” or even something like “find guys for sex”. Both searches do bring up Grindr though.

    Doesn’t seem like there’s a story here.

  10. wow. quite a lot of negativity towards this guy. didn’t realize boingboing readers were so petty.

    1. “wow. quite a lot of negativity towards this guy. didn’t realize boingboing readers were so petty.”

      Nothing more petty than making such an accusation via Anon. BBers are (generally speaking) interested in reasons and evidence, not just buying the reason given by some jackass who is J’accusing a competitor’s product. He gets negativity because his rant (which has occupied our time) is not really justified when you consider the evidence.

      Pretty much any auto-suggest feature lists suggestions based on two main criteria: *Similarity of keywords *Popularity based on downloads/views. If anyone deserves vitriol here (and I’m not convinced anyone does) it would be the marketers of the sex offender app for using similar keywords to Grindr, knowing that there is already a captive high-volume search audience using those keywords.

  11. In addition to what’s been said, that’s not an app FOR sex offenders. It’s an app for safety-conscious parents. So Android is linking gay men to parents. Are we still offended?

  12. It seems to me that, according to their description and function, they are related in that they are both people finders with a keyword of ‘sex’.

    I think people are seeing random or casual relations, and putting nefarious motives behind them. (Protip: your computer doesn’t REALLY hate you, no matter how uncooperative it may be.) Computers run on data, and given the number of Bob Sagget video search results, they have no ability to discern taste.

    The writer does have some reason to be overly sensitive about this because the “gay men = sex offender” line of thinking does exist. But especially since Google would be the last company who would make the relationship between the two purposeful.

  13. Honestly, anyone who would use an app named ‘GRINDR’ seems a likely sex offender who’s been in jail or prohibited from using the internet. HOW many years ago was that last missing vowel naming scheme played out?

  14. Ugh. I’m more interested in why The Atlantic is increasingly publishing more thin gruel content like this. They used to have such thoughtful essays. I’m glad I canceled my subscription years ago.

    There’s no evidence presented for a consistent pattern of associating apps for gay men with sex offenders. Out of the tens or hundreds of thousands of Android Apps available, one observation tells you nothing.

  15. The real question is: Why are these two apps separate apps? I demand a completely generalized application that will allow me to search a non-discriminatory geoloc database for entirely user-defined purposes.

    “Android, where can I find a drum circle in Kingston, Ontario tonight?”

    “Android, where in Tennessee am I most likely to encounter a trucker convoy?”

    “Android, what hackerspace in North America has the most single straight women?”

    Damn you stupid impulsive “app” consumers to hell for all your poor computering! Market failure, I say!

  16. If I saw that “death’s head mask” logo out of context I’d be more likely to associate it with some kind of criminal activity than with good ol’ wholesome gay sex between consenting adults. (Then again, that’s not really my area of expertise either.)

    1. I’ve seen this app before and I never understood the icon, either — perhaps, because like you, I’m not gay. I think it’d give me nightmares, not a stiffy.

  17. I get ads for sex offender search apps while looking at tarot pages… because the words ‘finding’ and ‘searching’ and ‘love’ and ‘sex’ are very present. Let’s use our heads here people, oh wait, let’s not.. let’s let the computer do it for us.

  18. Have you never spent any time in the Android Market and seen that there’s almost NEVER a good recommendation for other apps based on the one you’re looking at. It’s just that usually you’re looking for something like a task manager or flashlight app, which rarely if ever result in offenses to people’s lifestyle choices (except for that one really awful flashlight app – hoo boy!).

  19. What would one application have to do with another?

    You mean besides the fact that both draw from sexual demographics many consider deviant?

    1. Exactly. If I were a homophobic, fundamentalist helicopter parent who wanted to find all the dangerous people in my area, I would want an app that found both nearby sex offenders and gay men, as well as Wiccans, women who wear pants, and teenagers who try to organize dances in small midwestern towns.

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