The post-Internet era has ushered in generations of
socially awkward adults who’ve long leaned on technology for their
social kicks. But as millennials age out of college, many adults have
found themselves…well, painfully lonely.
And tech companies have taken note.
Technology titans and fledgling startups alike —
including three in San Diego — are all stepping up, each with different
ideas about how to get people talking in real life again. But can apps
and new tech platforms really help our social angst?
Tech companies have tried in the past, and most have
failed to earn our attention. Yet the opportunity to address our
collective loneliness persists — and grows year after year.
Technology may have started the problem. Now they’re trying to fix it
Meeting new friends — and then maintaining those
friendships as a busy adult — is not a problem unique to younger
generations, says Miriam Kirmayer, a therapist and friendship researcher
at McGill University. It’s something most adults experience after
“Once we’re no longer in school, we aren’t surrounded
by a group of people who are going through similar life experiences, or
perhaps have similar interests or schedules,” Kirmayer said. “As
adults, we become busy with work, romance, children, careers, and aging
parents. Even if we do have time to meet new people, where can we look?”
Although not a new problem, there’s a good chance the
modern lifestyle is contributing to an uptick in social isolation.
Social media allows users to keep in touch with friends and family
without ever picking up the phone or inviting anyone to dinner.
E-commerce takes the small talk out of shopping. Convenience apps like
Uber, PostMates, and Instcart allow city dwellers to order groceries, a
cab, and dinner without looking anyone in the eye.
Research on loneliness and isolation has shown many
adults struggle with forming and maintaining meaningful friendships. A
new study conducted by UC San Diego researchers, published last month,
found that 3 out of 4 Americans experience “moderate to high levels of
loneliness.” Older studies found loneliness rates of 17 percent to 57
percent and that younger generations are among the loneliest of all.
Harvard psychology professor Matthew Lieberman says
our need to connect with other humans is even more fundamental, more
basic, than our need for food or shelter.
“We’re more connected than ever, but we’re also more
alone and isolated than ever,” Kirmayer said. “That’s a problem, because
scientific research has shown we benefit from friendship and being
socially connected. We used to think that was a luxury, but now we’re
realizing it’s essential for health.”
How tech wants to treat — or cure — loneliness
When a widespread problem is unaddressed — and
growing in need by the year — companies generally rise up with
solutions. And so they have in the loneliness arena.
Some of these new services border on the bizarre,
like New York City-based Cuddlist, which sends out “professional
cuddlers” to hold, stroke, and embrace lonely people in a nonsexual way
for $80 an hour. Then there’s HearMe.app, which allows users to share
their thoughts with an attentive stranger (online employees called
“listeners”) for $10 a week. Their tagline? “Not everyone needs therapy,
but we all need someone to talk to.”
These apps treat symptoms of loneliness, but there’s a
wave of tech companies attempting to treat loneliness at its core — by
helping people make real in-person, human connections. Some of the
bigger players in this space are dating apps that viewed platonic
friendships as a secondary market. Users can meet new friends the same
way they find new dates: by sharing their interests, ages and lifestyle
details online, and letting an algorithm match them with potential
friends to meet in person.
But do any of these apps really work?
The graveyard for meetup and friendship apps is
depressingly expansive, indicating the problem is a tough nut to crack.
Tinder, a popular dating app best known for facilitating hookups between
strangers, launched a friendship feature in 2016 called Tinder Social,
which allowed users to organize group meetups with strangers in hopes of
linking up with new friends. A year later, that feature was disabled
Tinder said the feature had “modest adoption,” but
the idea didn’t “fit cleanly with (their) future direction.” If a
feature is successful, it’s rarely abandoned.
Tinder’s rival, Bumble, also launched its friendship
feature Bumble BFF in 2016. Instead of coordinating group meetups,
Bumble BFF tried to match friends one on one. So far, this one has stuck
“We’ve had a lot of user adoption on BFF, especially
with women,” said Bumble’s chief brand officer Alex Williamson. However,
the company was not willing to share numbers on how many of its users
signed up for the friendship feature, or if it’s been as popular as the
Despite the challenges in this space, new players
keep diving in. When it comes to friend-making apps, there’s Hey! VINA
for women, Atleto for sports lovers, Meet My Dog for animal lovers, and
Cliq, We3, and Squad for those looking to meet up in groups. Here in San
Diego, tech startups like Frendli, DoWhop, and Beekn are all trying to
get people out in the real world to make new friends.
But none of these apps have reached mass user
adoption, like Tinder did with dating or Facebook did for social media.
Their staffing remains small, and their app downloads are unimpressive.
And all are facing a massive barrier to success.
Why real friendship is difficult for tech to inspire
To be clear, there are many reasons tech companies
fail, not the least of which is poor planning when it comes to revenue
generation. Founders often succumb to the Field of Dreams fallacy: If
you build it, they will come. But most often, users don’t come and apps
die when resources dry up.
Setting aside this common mistake, founders of
friendship apps have bigger problems to tackle: social stigmas,
inadequate algorithms, and — perhaps most troublesome of all — a
fundamental misunderstanding of how friendships are formed. Friendship
experts say tech founders will likely need to address these hangups if
they ever hope to reach mass user adoption.
Shame and embarrassment
Kirmayer, the friendship researcher, also works as a
consultant for technology companies building social apps. She said one
of the biggest obstacles to apps like Bumble BFF and Frendli is user
“The loneliness people experience stokes an
incredible sense of shame,” Kirmayer said. “People are hesitant to put
themselves out there and acknowledge the fact that they don’t have many
Williamson said Bumble is acutely aware of this
obstacle, and the company is working to normalize the behavior. They’re
posting blogs on topics like friendship and vulnerability, hosting
events, and trying to cultivate a community centered on trust and
openness. She said online dating faced the same issue in its early days,
but that social stigma has faded in recent years thanks to work done by
Tinder and Bumble.
Karen Dobkins, a UC San Diego researcher who studies
deep human connection, said existing friendship apps have a major flaw
in their design. Users get to create profiles just like dating apps,
which means dishonesty can proliferate.
“You edit yourself,” Dobkins said. “You present
things you think other people will like, but it’s often a false
representation of yourself.”
If users aren’t presenting their real selves, the matching algorithm is dead in the water.
False profiles aside, Dobkins said the matching
algorithms are also too simple. Shared interests are not what inspires
deep human connection, she said, and filling out profiles with generic
questions won’t satisfy users.
“Answering those questions makes us all feel a little
depressed,” Dobkins said. “They don’t capture who you are. They capture
Lack of vulnerability
The main appeal of friendship apps (and dating apps
for that matter) is that they remove much of the vulnerability that
comes with social interactions. Introductions are made for you, and
rejections aren’t face-to-face.
But vulnerability is also the key to real human
connections, according to Brené Brown, a research professor at the
University of Houston who has spent the past two decades studying
courage, vulnerability and shame. In her book “Daring Greatly,” she
writes that “true belonging only happens when we present our authentic,
imperfect selves to the world.”
Dobkins says users of friendship apps might sense a
superficiality to the technology, as the apps fail to capture the
vulnerability that comes with in-person interactions. And while
friendship apps might ease the burden of making new friends, they might
also perpetuate social struggle.
“As a society, we might get out of practice
experiencing early vulnerability,” Kirmeyer said. “And that’s dangerous.
Perhaps you want to approach a fellow mom at a Mom & Tots group, or
you’re hoping to date someone you see at a coffee shop. You might not
have the social skills to approach them.”
Where do we go from here?
Robert Swisher, the founder of friend-matching app
Frendli, said the obstacles facing this field haven’t cowed him.
Instead, he sees the struggle as an indicator of a remaining need in the
“That’s why I started Frendli,” he said. “I tried a bunch of things, and I didn’t like any of them.”
And Dayton Mills, the founder of the Beekn app for
impromptu social meetups, said it’s a waiting game. Younger generations
look to technology to solve their problems, and when technology hasn’t
solved a big problem… well then it’s only a matter of time.”