Diseases spread through sharing the same air. Through touching, sneezing, kissing – all of the bodily intimacies of being physically close to someone can facilitate disease transfer. Messaging with someone who may be miles away from you, on the other hand, is not known to cause disease. While social critics often bemoan the alienating effect overuse of mobile communication has on our in-the-flesh relationships, a recent health scare in New York City makes it more obvious than ever that social apps and networks facilitate real-life friendships and relationships. And unfortunately, when social networks increase sociability, they also increase the likelihood that you’re going to socialize with someone sick.
Since 2010, meningitis has been on the upswing in New York City. It has infected 22 New York-area men, killing seven, over the past three years. Since the last three of the five cases were fatal, concern over the outbreak is growing. The New York Health Department issued a statement encouraging men who use hookup apps to get vaccinated. This is because, as Slate reported, all 22 men infected were using gay hookup apps like Grindr, Adam4Adam, Manhunt, and Scruff.
Although the NYCHD’s warning also encouraged men who visit bars or go to parties to get vaccinated (it’s pretty broad) they’re still treading on fraught ground. The actual statement given by the NYCHD isn’t inflammatory – it makes sense to note that using this type of app was a common factor in the spread of the virus. But it could be easily misinterpreted as a homophobic statement.
The idea that the finger could be pointed at gay hookup apps or even gay hookup culture in general is problematic because it assigns blame to the culture and tools rather than the virus. And the fact is, this is just a typical case of a disease spreading through a community. You might as well tell every gay person who goes out and doesn’t have a monogamous relationship to get vaccinated. Apps like Grindr and its ilk are used by millions and millions of people, most of whom do not get meningitis.
These 22 cases are certainly worth making announcements about, and it’s good that the NYCHD issued the statement and encouraged people to get vaccinated, but it’s important to note that just because they included apps on the list of things that make you vulnerable to meningitis does not mean that using Grindr or other hookup apps will make you more vulnerable to most diseases. In this instance, because meningitis hit a section of the gay community in New York that uses these apps, it may seem like hookup apps are the cause of the outbreak. But the virus would have still spread without the app, as long as the people carrying it were socializing on the same level. This is a case where it’s important to make distinctions. If members of a water polo league contacts mono after a weekend-long tournament, it’s not because they played water polo. Or if a group of Redditors have a series of meetups and give each other the flu, it’s not because they use Reddit. The tools we use and the way we choose to socialize are conduits for disease only inasmuch they facilitate human closeness, which is really the only way to spread contagious illness.