Shaka McGlotten ’97, an Associate Professor of Media, Society and the Arts at SUNY Purchase spoke Thursday in JRC 101 “On Not Hooking Up.” McGlotten discussed the smartphone app, Grindr, which makes it easier for gay men to meet. His upcoming book, Virtual Intimacies: Media Cultures and Queer Sociality, explores different media as an instrument of understanding the relationship between digital media and queer sociality. On Thursday, the S&B’s Kelsey Roebuck sat down with McGlotten to discuss Grindr, types of media and being an alum.
What is Grindr and how did you become interested in it as a topic?
Grindr is a smart phone app. It is based on what has sometimes been called a located media app. So it’s based on GPS technology. And essentially it’s a cruising app for gay guys on the move and when you log on you’ll see like a grid of men who have logged on or who have been logged on recently. Basically I’m interested in it because I’ve been studying different aspects of gay male culture for the last 14 or 15 years and especially the relationship that gay men have to media technologies.
What other medias have you considered [besides your book]?
In the book I have chapters about DIY porn, about virtual worlds like the game World of Warcraft; I look at mass mediated sex scandals like the ones that would be televised on To Catch a Predator. I think there’s something else. There’s some other chapter in there somewhere. I’m always interested in media, technology, art and other sort of ways that queer culture and media culture would collide or co-exist. I think just the way that our interactions with technologies are productive of new social forms, new cultural forms.
How do you go about studying something like media or particularly alternative medias?
There are a few different things. I think one is that you have to have kind of a passionate interest in whatever it is you’re studying, regardless of your discipline. How I go about studying is I get interested in something and then I just sort of follow the thread. But in terms of my training as an anthropologist, what it means is really just spending time with people and talking with people about how they use the technology. So even though I have my own set of experiences, prejudices and attitudes about a particular thing, the point is to really understand how, in a broader sense, it is being used, how other people are making meaning of it. It is not like my own feelings don’t matter about it, but it’s trying to make sense of it more from someone else’s perspectives.
Why do you think it’s important to study this type of media especially as it is related to gender, sexuality, and race studies?
Part of it, without being too autobiographical, part of it is where I’m situated in the culture. As someone who is black and queer, who has been identified with queer politics for a long time, I can sort of see the ways that I am both hailed and kind of ignored by these media forms. And how my own participation in them is mediated by factors of race, class, sexuality and so on. That’s part of it. The bigger part of it is this longer, broader interest in new stuff. And not just trends or a new device, but the ways that culture is generative. It is always changing, new stuff is always happening. So figuring out new aesthetic and cultural forms for me is why I do the work that I do. Certainly media and media technologies are a place that feed the kind of seam or the edge at which people are making this stuff.
As an alum, how have you used your experiences at Grinnell after college?
I think I joked about this last night, but I got my degrees in disciplines that are really not popular among conservative politicians who really want to end art and anthropology, which are the two disciplines that I’m trained in. I think the difference between now and when I went to school is that I never felt like I was preparing for a specific career or job, but that I was engaged in learning. That was the point, not being educated into a specific discipline, just figuring things out. So now when I teach, I’m really disturbed to see this idea that when kids come in as freshman and say ‘well, what kind of career am I gonna have with this?’ It’s like, does that matter? But I guess to answer the question more directly; the kinds of things I learned in Grinnell are the kinds of things that only a liberal arts education can afford. You do get to explore, you get to try out different disciplines, I think that the critical thinking and writing skills that I learned at Grinnell were formative. And also just especially at the time I was here, the emphasis that was placed on learning as itself as a kind of art, a kind of process, that’s something that has stayed with me. So in my career, even as I’ve done the types of things I have to do to be successful, I haven’t done them in a way that is like I was strategizing … I just sort of followed my intuition and followed the things I was interested in, but the skills that I learned here, in terms of problem solving, approaching new kinds of work, mixing art and anthropology, those are the kinds of things that I learned here.
What is it like being back on campus?
It’s fun. It’s weird because last time I was here was in 2003. … Now, I’m like ‘how do I get to this place?’ So the fact that there are new buildings is interesting. It’s also interesting, even when I was here last time, people were on their phones, but the proliferation of like, now everyone is on digital devices all the time. Even when I came back ten years ago, people would call each other on their cell phones but you look around now and everyone is in front of a screen. So that feels different. I want to check out the pool, so I’ll probably do that today or tomorrow. I had a couple of conversations with students just randomly and everyone seems just as smart and interesting as ever.