Harnessing technology

BLUF • clubs • policy • technical

Submitted by Nigel Whitfield, BLUF webmaster, Nigel, aka SubDirectory (3), 04 June 2014



Bijou World, a vendor of vintage gay porn, wrote an interesting blog about the recent IML, in which they lamented the lack of people in full leather, compared to the number in, say, harnesses.

It's an interesting read, and while I can't say whether or not it's indicative of the leather scene in general (since I'm in the UK, and they're in the US), it does raise some interesting points that I thought I'd write a little about, though first, I'll also draw to your attention a recent quote of the day on Ruff's Stuff.

Bijou's blog talks about the ease with which ad-hoc groups can be formed using social media, and wonders if that has increased the splintering of more focused groups, citing Hotboots, and a much smaller meet for them than has apparently been the case in previous years.

I don't think it's quite so simple as that, though the internet has had many effects on the fetish scene. There are a lot of different reasons, one of which perhaps is that fluidity means that now many people many not necessarily identify solely with one tribe; there are many BLUF members, for instance, who are also into being a rubber pup, or other types of kink, and so might not necessarily always identify with the BLUF group at a large event like IML or Folsom Europe. While I'd always love to see as many people at our events as possible, I still think it's great that, if people wish, they can belong to plenty of other groups and subcultures - it shouldn't be an all or nothing thing.

Full leather is, of course, what BLUF is all about. Five years ago if you'd asked me what the age range of the club was, it would have been a pretty different answer to what it is now. The popular perception may well be that full leather is dying out; it's expensive, it can be seen as exclusionary, and when times are hard and young people can barely find a place to live that they can afford, it's no surprise that for some, a leather uniform is a long way down the list.

But, in spite of all that, we do have young members joining BLUF, in increasing numbers - the graph below shows a breakdown of ages in our top four countries, based on those members who disclose their age on their profiles (it's not mandatory on BLUF, and only around 6-8% of members in the countries shown have done so).

In the US in particular, the number of younger people joining is growing - over a quarter of those on the graph are 35 or under, and across most countries, I've noticed a rise in the number of people under 30 who are joining, too. I'm sure people could speculate on the reasons for that until the cows come home, but for now let's just say that while you might not see people out in full leather as much as in the past, I think it's wrong to say that younger people don't aspire to that look.

Mindful of that quote earlier, I think that one of the problems that faces some sub-cultures, and groups like BLUF and Hotboots, is attracting and engaging younger people. Five years ago, when I took over from BLUF's founder, our website was out of date, and people couldn't upload their own photos, or send messages on the site. We were in danger of becoming something that people would join to get a BLUF number they could list on their Recon profile.

The fetish world now has a huge number of sites where people can go online and hook up, many of them commercial, making enough money that they can have teams working on new features - and much as some people may think the technology isn't the point, younger people have grown up in an age where you can share a new photo with people in a few seconds on Facebook, or send a quick message from a phone to see who's going out tonight. Commercial sites and apps can help provide that - but because of the need to make money, they're often not as tightly focussed on an aspect of the community as BLUF or HotBoots. Recon, for instance, has effectively dropped the 'Worldleathermen' and 'Worldrubbermen' names under which many of us came to know it, in favour of the all-encompassing brand, with an 'interest' listed on profiles.

Technology is a great enabler, but it's a two-edged sword; a small local group that meets in person doesn't need it so much. Regular get-togethers in person can help keep groups like that alive, and there's great work being done by things like the London Leather Social, or Fetish Men San Diego, helping to build communities in local areas.

But a geographically dispersed club like ours needs technology to help bring people together. It's no longer enough to have a simple web site with a bare minimum of features, because as we started to see, people won't come back often. And if you don't have the things that they expect, then younger people may not become involved in the first place.

My background is in tech - as a computing graduate, and IT journalist - and that's one of the reasons I took on the challenge of BLUF. We don't do everything right - still no iPhone app, for example - but compared to five years ago, we have made massive leaps and strides. Our website has the usual picture upload and messaging functions, plus some clever tricks that I don't think are found on any other site - want to find a top visiting your town from Norway in the next 7 days who's into bondage? - as well as a mobile version, desktop apps for Mac and Windows, and an Android version. We've opened up our calendar pages for everyone to see, both as a service to the wider community, and because it increases our visibility - as does this blog, and our Facebook page, and our automated tweets of calendar events.

All of this is the result of many hundreds - probably even thousands - of hours work, designing, testing, coding. It all helps to support the volunteers like the guys at BLUF Chicago, Bristol and LA who turn out to welcome visitors to their events, and put a friendly face to the club.

Their work remains as important as ever - it's the events and the people that everyone turns out for after all - though I firmly believe that to thrive and to grow, a club like ours can't afford to sit on its laurels and ignore changing technology. You can't hide from Twitter, or ignore the need to connect with people on Facebook - notwithstanding that company's puritan policies. Outside a few dedicated members, who would engage with the club anyway, those other channels of communication are important, to help spread the word about BLUF, and to keep people in touch with a living, evolving club.

And that, perhaps, is the tricky thing for clubs to manage. If you're not tied to a geographical location - and even those that are still have to find ways to reach out to people - technology is becoming increasingly important. It's also becoming more complex, because frankly a static website just isn't going to cut it for many people in future.

The fetish corporates can throw money and advertising at the problem. They can easily ensure that when people search for 'leather' or other fetish terms, they're found, whether on Google, Twitter, Facebook, or the next big thing.

For voluntary groups, if they're to stay in the game, the time may be approaching when the decisions about who's in charge of your technology and how you use it - not to mention how you fund it - are just as important as those regarding who's the public face of your club.

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