“Buy food or grow them yourself”: Comparing affordances of Chinese gay men dating apps Blued and Aloha


Gay dating apps (GDA) have drawn increasing attention from researchers (Wu & Ward, 2018). Current literature regarding GDA has shed lights on self-presentation (Bonner-Thompson, 2017; Conner, 2019), everyday interactions (Licoppe et al., 2015; Wu & Ward, 2019), uses and gratifications (Miller, 2015) as well as how GDA impacted gay communities (Aunspach, 2019; Batiste, 2013; Renninger, 2019) and gay sexual encounters (Race, 2015a, 2015b).

The case of Chinese GDA contributes to this vein in multiple ways. Firstly, in heteronormative China where homosexuals remain generally invisible and stigmatized, GDA play a more important role in mediating gay men’s sexual and romantic encounters. Secondly, Chinese GDA differ from the western counterparts in their platformization through functionality imbrication (Wang, 2019). Thirdly, studies on GDA often generalize affordances of different GDA and overlook the nuances within. Blued and Aloha, two of the most popular GDA in China, respectively adopted two classic interface designs: locative grid (like Grindr) and swipe-to-match (like Tinder), providing a perfect case to compare.

Accordingly, the current study investigates how Chinese urban gay men use Blued and Aloha respectively, and why they use them in different ways. By asking these questions, we aim to explore the nuanced differences of uses between GDA and how they are mutually shaped by technology and sociality.

In light of the mutual-shaping perspective where artifacts and social action are seen as reciprocally constitutive (Lievrouw, 2014), we adopt the concept of affordances as an analytical tool, which foregrounds the dyadic relationship between users and technologies (Evans et al., 2017). In practice, we combine an interface analysis of GDA and in-depth interviews with 12 gay men to gain insights from both sides.

Findings reveal that Blued and Aloha, two location-based real-time GDA with different interface designs, yield notably disparate imaginations and expectations. While Blued has gained its reputation as a “hook-up app”, Aloha is deemed less sexually explicit and described as a gay version of Instagram, namely a photo-sharing app. To account for the phenomenon, the affordances analysis between Blued and Aloha unfold in three aspects: proximity, authenticity, and temporality. How these affordances are designed by the platform and negotiated by the users is discussed in detail.

Furthermore, our informants used the “food buying/growing” analogy to interpret their different uses of two GDA: “buying food” means time-saving hooking-up and “growing food” indicates time-consuming self-branding, both of which are practices of instrumental rationality. The analogy also provides a glimpse into the structures of feeling produced by the neoliberalization of intimacy and the heteronormative policing of gay desires.