WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — You don’t need a degree in semiotics to read meaning into an eggplant balanced on a ruler or peach with an old-fashioned telephone receiver on top. That the former is the universally recognized internet symbol for a large male member and the latter visual shorthand for a booty call is something most any 16-year-old could all too readily explain.
As with most else in our culture, demographics define the future, particularly those describing an age cohort born with a smartphone in hand. That, at least, is the calculation being made by Grindr, the successful gay meeting app with ambitions to overhaul itself as an internet commons for a generation of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their pals.
And so, starting this week, Grindr will offer to users a set of patented emoji, called Gaymoji — 500 icons that function as visual shorthand for terms and acts and states of being that seem funnier, breezier and less freighted with complication when rendered in cartoon form in place of words.
“Almost 20 percent of all Grindr messages” already use emoji, its creative director, Landis Smithers, said. “There’s this shift going on culturally and we need to follow the users where they’re taking us.”
That is, toward a visual language of rainbow unicorns, bears, otters and handcuffs — to cite some of the images available in the first set of 100 free Gaymoji symbols. An additional 400 are there for the unlocking by those willing to pay $3.99 to own digital icons arranged in categories like Mood, Objects, Body, and Dating and Sex.
The company’s founder, Joel Simkhai, said that in his own communications on Grindr he had often felt the need for emoji that were not previously available.
“Partly, this project started because the current set of emojis set by some international board were limited and not evolving fast enough for us,” said Mr. Simkhai, who in certain ways fits the stereotype of a gay man in West Hollywood: a lithe, gym-fit, hairless nonsmoker who enjoys dancing at gay circuit parties. “If I wanted to say something about going dancing, I would always have to use the red-dress dancing woman. I thought, ‘Why isn’t there a guy dancing?’ It was weird to me that I always had to send that woman in the red dress.”
Some were perplexed by the sale last year of a 60 percent stake in Grindr to a Chinese investment conglomerate specializing in online gaming. And yet to those who saw in an app that describes itself as the world’s largest all-male social media network an eroticized version of Candy Crush, the move seemed all but inevitable.
Studies commissioned by Grindr have shown that whether they are lured by the prospect of sexual encounters, or coffee dates or the constantly refreshed cascade of neck-to-knee photos, the three million daily users have been logging on to the site an average of 18 times daily and spending a total there of almost one hour out of every 24.
“But we were a one-track business,” Mr. Simkhai said on a recent tour of Grindr’s new headquarters in West Hollywood.
A stark change from the quarters Grindr formerly occupied in an anonymous building on a dreary stretch of Sunset Boulevard, the company’s news offices occupy a glass-walled floor at the Pacific Design Center, with stereoscopic vistas of the Los Angeles area visible from every desk.
Yet few of the 90 employees in the offices seemed to take much note of the brilliant azure skies returned to the area after weeks of rain. Like most every other human in the developed world, they had their heads buried in their screens.
“We’re all so attached to our phones that when people talk about the notion of the computer melding with the human and ask when that’s going to happen, I say it already has,” Mr. Simkhai said. He added that the prospect of being deprived of a phone for 20 minutes induced in him “the highest level of anxiety I can possibly have.”
That much-analyzed compulsion, with its origins in the brain’s pleasure receptors — they light up much the way a text box on a smartphone does at signs of incoming messages — seemed tailor-made for Grindr’s expansion into emoji.
“The core of what’s happening with emojis, or Gaymojis, is that they take some of the pressure off coming up with something to say in the windowless box that is an online conversation,” Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist who is writing a book about how the internet is changing language, said this week from the South by Southwest technology conference in Austin, Tex. “It’s, ‘Here’s some clever images so I don’t have to come up with a witty pick up line.’ You’re not trying to communicate anything in particular so much as signaling your desire to continue the conversation.”
Gaymoji, then, serve as both conversational and even existential placeholders, Ms. McCulloch said: “You’re using them to say, ‘I’m still here and I still want to be talking to you.’”
Among the pitfalls Grindr faces by introducing a set of icons to represent a group no longer easily defined is that by replacing one set of hoary stereotypes, it may be introducing others just as clunky and unfortunate.
“One problem is, you have this common language that’s not being organically created by marginalized people,” as were secret hankie or hatband codes once used to signal identity in the era of the closet, said Doug Meyer, an assistant professor in the department of women, gender and sexuality at the University of Virginia. “The corporate element is a new part of this. Having a common corporate language created to benefit a business ends up excluding a lot of people and creating very particular and normative ways of thinking about sex.”
The point is not altogether lost on Mr. Simkhai, who noted that at a recent birthday celebrated just before he inaugurated the Gaymoji, he was given the bad news by colleagues that, at 40, he might have aged out of his own app.
As if to emphasized that assertion, a reporter combing through the new set of Gaymoji in search of something that would symbolize a person of Mr. Simkhai’s vintage could find only one.
It was an image of a gray-haired daddy holding aloft a credit card.