In a world obsessed with finding technological solutions to everyday problems, ill-fated iPhone app Girls Around Me becomes the natural extension of the ladies' night. By allowing users to view the number of girls who have checked in at locations within a certain radius, along with the social networking profiles of those girls, it becomes a manifestation of society's age-old dictum which states that 'having fun' must involve being surrounded at all times by attractive members of the opposite sex. I don't think I need to point out that, generally speaking, this is disproportionately true where the male of the species is concerned.
The front page of the app's website reads: "In the mood for love, or just after a one-night stand? Girls Around Me puts you in control! Reveal the hottest nightspots, who's in them, and how to reach them...", and this suggests that it is designed for use in the already-dangerous ground of a city or town's night-time venues. The knee-jerk reaction for many will be one of blind outrage against social networking, not to mention that an app like this combined with copious amounts of alcohol is a recipe for absolute disaster. But are we, like the proverbial bad workman, blaming the tools rather than the people who use them?
In my experience, the bar or nightclub acts as a carnivalesque realm where the rules of engagement, as it were, undergo a significant shift. It is as if, simply by entering the doors of a late-night establishment, a young woman signs away her rights to privacy, to freedom from harrassment; broadly, she forfeits her right to simply exist without fear of being hassled by men. It is rare to be approached on the street in broad daylight (although believe me when I say it does happen), but as soon the sun goes down, it seems that some men undego a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation; behaviour that would have been unthinkable a few hours earlier becomes a perfectly acceptbale mode of conduct.
Now, I don't want to sound like Samantha Brick; I am by no means irresistible to the opposite sex. This is a common problem; it is not just the girls who are the most beautiful, who dress to kill, or who court male attention who have this problem. And even those girls don't deserve to be hassled without their consent. One of the problems with Girls Around Me is that it doesn't discriminate - any girl who is unfortunate enough to be unaware of the importance of privacy settings could find herself and her personal information exposed to anyone within walking distance.
This is the crucial difference between Girls Around Me and the gay/bisexual (and predominantly male) equivalent, Grindr. Grindr works on an opt-in basis, where users must sign up and create a profile specifically for use on that site, allowing them to choose exactly what information they display. Of course people can lie, and this is a danger which Grindr users must take into account, but crucially, the men who use this app know that they are being watched. Girls Around Me seems to have no other function than to indulge some men's apparent desire to spy on women. I have no problem with consenting adults courting casual sex, but the focus in this case really must be on the word consenting.
For many people, male and female, engaging in some no-strings fun is an important part of a night out, and as long as everything is consensual they shouldn't be denied that right. But the fact that such personal information is displayed is what puts women at risk. This is something which, without modern technology, would be impossible, but I still don't think that social networking is entirely to blame. Sadly, women have always been subject to stalking and other forms of calculated harrassment from men.
It isn't really the technology that is at fault, though; it is the people that use it. This product would not have been launched if there wasn't a market for it; a group of men who see it as acceptable to go to a bar based purely on its quotient of eligible, attractive women. I would hope that a man who would never have stalked or deliberately hunted down a woman based purely on looks and second-hand information would suddenly decide to do so because his phone can download a function which allows this. I do have slightly more faith in men than that, and I hope I'm not proved wrong.
What's sad is that I'm fairly certain that, if there was a case where a woman had been stalked, harrassed or, in a worst-case scenario, attacked by someone using the app, she would be criticised for having an attractive Facebook profile picture, or for setting her relationship status to single, or for writing a status which revealed that she was drunk or otherwise out for a good time. As in cases of sexual harrassment, it is she who would take the blame for alledgedly 'enticing' men to single her out amongst a room full of potential victims.
I hope I'm not being too hard on men here; of course not every man who downloads this app is a monster. And in certain circumstances I can see the value of knowing before you pay your entry fee for a club that you aren't walking into an (apologies in advance) sausage-fest, although admittedly knowing the name and measurements of every female in the building is a Godzilla-sized step too far. Perhaps some download it out of curiosity, and I'm sure most would never dream of using the app as an aid for stalking or intimidation. But I really can't imagine how a man would justify the use of this tool as a legitimate and above-board way of meeting women. Can men no longer approach a lovely-looking member of the opposite sex in a bar and find out about them the normal way?
As blogger John Brownlee wrote, if anything good comes out of this it is that people have yet another reason to start caring about what they do and do not decide to share on social networking sites. Personally, I'm just glad the app was removed from sale before we got to see what the worst that could come out of it might have been.