Constructing structures of desire: Chinese gay men’s dating app use in a polymedia environment


Mobile dating apps are popular among Chinese gay men. While local apps like Blued and Aloha dominate the Chinese market, foreign apps like Grindr have also found their way to metropolitan Chinese gay men. In such a polymedia environment (Madianou, 2014), how gay users differentiate these apps and prioritize them for different communicative purposes remains to be studied. A prior study shows that gay users often Grindr for immediate hook-ups, while they expect 'serious' dating on Tinder (MacKee, 2016). This means that users’ practices are highly structured, as these structures are shaped by the apps.

Drawing from sexual fields theory (Green, 2008), we frame these structures as “structures of desire”. Based on 51 interviews with urban Chinese gay men, we explore the structures of desires and discuss how they are shaped by dating apps, whose affordances are shaped by local internet regulations and marketing strategies. We specifically examine three apps: Blued, Aloha, and Grindr. (1) Blued presents a range of nearby users’ profiles in descending order of geographic proximity, affording immediate hook-ups. It has the largest user base and connects people from different social strata. Therefore, Blued users are often perceived to be of “low quality” by urban middle-class gay men. (2) Aloha is similar to Tinder, as users need to swipe left or right on the profile to signal the dis/interest in establishing a connection. Aloha also allows users to post pictorial/textual statuses and to follow others without getting a match. If one clicks on another user’s profile, the interface will present a grid of pictures posted by that user. In consequence, Aloha is popular among those who have a higher level of media literacy and are capable of presenting their lives through carefully edited photos. According to the participants, the match mechanism acts as a speed bump which slows down the process of hooking up. Thus, Aloha is less used for immediate casual sex. (3) Grindr has a small user base because of China’s internet regulations. Grindr users are mainly Chinese gay men who have studied or traveled abroad, foreign students and expatriates living in China, and foreign travelers. It is thus perceived as a venue for those who have a racial preference for non-Chinese men or those who want to connect with middle/upper class Chinese gay men who have overseas experience. Overall, our findings suggest that the dating app scene in China is rather pluralized, with local/global tensions between global mobility and nation-bounded media landscape co-existing alongside local/local tensions across social strata.

Author Biographies

Shangwei Wu is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Media and Communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam. He researches dating apps and Chinese gay men’s social relationships.

Daniel Trottier is an Associate Professor of Global Digital Media in the Department of Media and Communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research considers the use of digital media for the purposes of scrutiny, denunciation, and shaming. 

Address: Woudestein, Van der Goot building, M8-16, P.O. Box 1738, NL-3000 DR Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Email: wu [at]; trottier [at]