Dating Apps, Not Billboards, Are the Secret to Winning the War on STIs

Last week, LA's controversial AIDS Healthcare Foundation mounted a billboard campaign in Hollywood linking dating apps to STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea. AHF shamed the apps in the press as "a digital bathhouse," where "the next STD" is just a few feet away. What AHF misses in its demonization of apps, and the sex that comes with them, is that dating apps are the key to a sustained, ongoing strategy to reach the men and women who are most at-risk. Any health organization, even one as self-interested, short sighted and megalomaniacal as Michael Weinstein's AIDS Healthcare Foundation, needs to recognize that in order to make a meaningful difference in the spread of STIs they need to work with the apps -- even if they don't understand them.

I've built several successful dating apps, including Daddyhunt, MR X and the soon-to-launch KNKI, and trust me, the potential that apps hold is enormous. An app with millions of users per day can reach more users than all the billboards in Los Angeles. Duh. Alienating the Grindrs and Tinders of the world is not only petty, it's a strategy as short-sighted as it is ineffective.

Unfortunately, AHF isn't the only non-profit run by bureaucrats who know little about using technology to improve outcomes, and who aren't held accountable for creating cost-effective interventions. Why? Because funding for organizations like AHF are tied to increased testing and services, or grants, not to developing innovative ways to test, innovate and scale solutions for a digital world.

AHF is a vestige of the AIDS Bureaucratic Machine, a system where education, testing and services were provided locally, and in which non-profit fiefdoms still sadly compete with each other for limited funding and resources. But the digital world we live in is no longer local, and delivering positive health outcomes needs to matter to these organizations more than press stunts, billboards or their own egos. Frankly, the world doesn't need another AHF; it needs the next HIV disruptor that completely reinvents the way we educate, test and treat millions of people. In other words, we need the next UBER for HIV and STIs.

Decades ago, when many of these organizations were formed, there was no rapid HIV test available, no PrEP, no postal-testing for STIs, no app with the ability to reach tens of millions of users with the click of a button. Rather than working with advances in technology to evolve, these organization remain stuck in old patterns, run by mostly well intentioned people who have little experience with digital marketing.

Over the past four years, I've implored numerous non-profits to explore public private partnerships with apps to educate, inform and improve outcomes. And to hold themselves accountable. I've spoken at the International AIDS Conference in Asia, at the UNAIDS for HIV Program Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation in Geneva, and the USAID Conference (on Innovative Uses of Communication Technology for HIV Programming) in Washington, DC, among others. At every conference, there are congratulations to go around and promises to do more. And nothing. Nothing happens. It's what in Yiddish we call a shande (a shame) and it makes me terribly sad that our foundations are so ineffectual.

At each conference, I've challenged the public sector, nonprofits and governments to develop targeted interventions: measureable initiatives that would leverage the power of apps to reach at risk populations in a way that empowers, rather than shames them. I've exhorted them to hire young people who understand the world of new media; to stop using ineffective and inefficient scare tactics, and to move beyond the outdated mass media advertising with which they are most comfortable. And most of all, I've encouraged them to think 'bigger' and be 'bolder'.

Dating apps can do so much more than a shame-based billboard. Apps can send out reminders to users to get tested like the app Hornet is doing, or apps could help users find testing centers that are close -- or free. And if there is an urgent concern, such as the outbreak of ocular syphilis last year among gay men in California, apps can get out alerts to those most at risk in the span of a day; something that would take public health depts and places like AHF, months to fund, approve and coordinate.

Unlike billboards, apps can adapt, and be innovative. In 2013, MR X partnered with Healthvana, an app that allows users to share verified test results securely and discreetly. Test results could be unlocked merely by sending a link.

Most importantly, apps can also help change the conversation.

At MR X, we encourage our members to connect "stigma-free" and live "HIV neutral," understanding that safe sex isn't just about being negative or positive for HIV. Many positive men are undetectable, and can not transmit the virus. Many who believe they are negative are actually positive. Discussions about these terms, both on the app and off have changed attitudes and practices. I believe that meaningful change happens regularly and often, and that the app experience can go far towards changing behavior. It's unfortunate that our publicly funded institutions let their own bias, prejudice and small-minded thinking keep them from making meaningful decisions.

In the coming weeks at MR X, we'll be adding additional features which allow users to post and use hashtags. While we know that many users will use the tags to find other #beardos or #whiskey drinkers or #tops, we hope to see #PrEP and #tested and #undetectable trending as well. If we can increase the amount of communication and discussion around sexual health, we can also increase prevention.

There are still some who believe the best health outcomes come from a top-down fiat, or by frightening people about risks, in hopes that they'll forgo sex altogether. But gay men know that, when it comes to our sexual health decisions, it's better when it comes bottom up.

Part of this comes from our unique history. Before the liberation of the Stonewall, there was no authority figures to tell us that our love was valid, let alone how to find each other or how to have sex. We had to teach ourselves. During the HIV epidemic, when major health officials only offered us moralizing and shame, this cultural skill was a literal lifesaver. We still need that skill today.

Sadly, many HIV organizations still fear that anything that facilitates gay sex is dangerous -- leftover trauma from the epidemic, perhaps. And while AHF in particular has earned the ire of many in the HIV/AIDS community for its conservative sexuality, with its campaigns against everything from PrEP to porn, the truth is that many organizations still regard apps as a threat.

But sex is never the real danger and neither are apps. Shame and ignorance are. Apps present an opportunity to change the way we have sex, and as soon as we learn to harness their incredible power, we'll all be a lot safer.