Nowadays, with a social network for any and every interest, using these networks has become the norm. Gay social networks, aka "dating" apps, have replaced their predecessors, online websites, and have taken over as one of the more popular ways for men to meet, and possibly have sex. Until recently, the majority of the gay dating apps didn't include users' HIV status. Each of the major apps has since found a unique way of introducing HIV status. Grindr, for example, set up "tribes" for members to join, linking HIV status among a list of gay identities such as bear, jock and leather.
In 2011 when the app Hornet launched, it was the first to introduce the "Know Your Status (KYS)" campaign and to offer users the option to display their HIV status within their profile. Users who indicate they are positive or have been recently tested receive a KYS badge. Those who enter their most recent HIV test date are automatically reminded when it's time to get tested again and update the entry, or they face having their HIV status changed to "unknown." This feature is completely voluntary, but it has started a discussion on what responsibilities gay dating apps have with regard to HIV prevention efforts.
Hornet recently took its HIV initiatives a step further by launching an in-app tool in collaboration with AIDS.gov that allows its U.S. users to find the 10 nearest HIV testing sites and care services, and it is looking to make the tool available to its users abroad. Hornet cofounder Sean Howell explained that within the first day of launching the tool, it had been used over 30,000 times.
"When we first launched, we knew we could do something cool to impact health, so we started with a Know Your Status feature which we decided to leave in the app permanently," said Howell. "Building in the AIDS.gov clinic locator is an even bigger step forward and one that matches the other uses of the app well. This tool brings in the closest clinics for HIV testing to your location and has a variety of ways to help you reach them. This kind of geo-specific resource is something the community should expect from apps like ours."
R Vincent Johns, a Hornet user who lives in South Carolina, believes the HIV conversation has come to a premature halt, and that apps like Hornet can help further it along and help stunt the rise of new infections among men who have sex with men. "I would go as far as to say that it is the hookup app's responsibility to get the conversation going again, at least on that platform," he said. "I label myself with my status and because I am willing to stand up and be seen, I get very little backlash for it. If it isn't put out there for the world to view, the stigma will persist."
Alex Cress, another Hornet user who lives in Los Angeles, has a different take on the responsibilities of gay social networks. "Knowing about HIV and how it is transmitted is very important, but at the same time, it's become impossible to look at any gay media without it reminding you that your life is constantly at risk," he said. "As a gay man who is promiscuous but relatively safe, I can say that I have spent so much of my life in panic because I've been so bombarded with reminders that HIV exists and I'm at risk, without actual support or facts about what it takes to really transmit it and what to do once you have it." He would instead prefer fewer "reminders" and more education. "Finding the 10 closest HIV resources locations is a great hook, but I just want more facts and less fear."
Hornet has launched different, country-specific apps in the past, especially in countries where users are considered to be at high risk for HIV. "We've also had great success helping academic studies reach participants, and the needs of our community are so big that I think users will keep seeing more from us on this front and we always welcome feedback, ideas, and partnerships with non profits," said Howell. "As long as we think the community has added value from these tools we will keep investing in them and doing our part to make a difference."