Are friendship apps really the cure to modern-day loneliness?

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Emma Ledger
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Can you really find your platonic soulmate on an app? And is it the answer to beating Britain’s loneliness epidemic?

When Clare Hadley was offered the chance to move from Manchester to London with the media agency she works for she instantly said yes. “I had visions of my new life, exploring museums, cool cocktail bars and long Sunday brunches,” she says. There was just one problem. After Hadley made the move, it was less Sex And The City and more solo in the city.

In response, she downloaded Hey! Vina, an app for women seeking platonic connections. Hadley was already swiping through Tinder in her adopted home city, so she says it felt natural. Today it is completely unremarkable to go online to search for love, and increasingly we are using tech to hunt for new friendships too. If Friends was remade today, it wouldn’t be unthinkable for Rachel and co to meet for a coffee in Central Perk via a friendship app.

If part of you is thinking that only losers would use an app to make friends, the stats might make you think again. When Hey! Vina launched in America two years ago, 100,000 women signed up in the first week. Now it is just one of a host of apps helping people make friends.

Others include Bumble BFF, a subsection of dating app Bumble, which uses the familiar ‘swipe-to-like’ mechanism as you scroll through nearby women in your selected age range. Another called Patook allows you to forge friendships with both women and men, but because humans clearly can’t be trusted there’s a ‘flirt detection feature’ to prevent users crossing the platonic line. Founder Tony Daher says the main demographic is women in their twenties and thirties, many of whom have moved somewhere new.

Making a move to a big city can be tough without friends by your side

There are also friendship apps that take it one step further by allowing people to connect with others at a similar life stage, such as Peanut for new mothers, and ones with a specific goal, such as Tourlina to help find a female travel companion, or Whistle which connects fitness buddies.

For anyone who’s never used a dating app, setting up a profile is as easy as choosing a couple of photos of yourself and writing a bio to share some likes and dislikes. Patook even lets you assign points to specific traits you’re looking for in potential friends, such as holding liberal views or being a non-smoker.

“I found it much harder to create my friendship profile than my Tinder one,” says Hadley. “I have a good idea of what I’m looking for romantically, but I have a broad group of friends with diverse interests so wasn’t sure I had a ‘type’. I realised that by mentioning things I was looking for in new friends – such as liking museums – I would actually eliminate some of my existing close friendships.”

Creating a friend checklist might feel a bit odd, but there are good reasons why Hadley and thousands of others are using friendship apps. According to recent research from the University of Oxford and Finland’s Aalto University, your social circle shrinks soon after your mid-twenties. The study analysed three million mobile phone users, looking at who they contacted and when, and found we make more and more friends until the age of 25, after which we lose them rapidly, with women losing them at a faster rate than men.

This might partly explain why most friendship apps target women only. Professor Robin Dunbar, who co-authored the study, says, “Women have this idea of a best friend, who is similar to a romantic partner but without the sexual component. It’s a concept all but unknown to men.

We make more and more friends until the age of 25, after which we lose them rapidly

“The internet may allow you to keep relationships going over a much wider geographical area, but – for now – a shoulder 2,000 miles away isn’t as good to cry on. “Even if you’re lucky enough to have lots of friends, life can change – friends move away and people fall out – and over the years your previously stacked Google Calendar can empty out. For a growing number of us, that’s when loneliness can creep in, a feeling heightened by social media’s endless bombardment of smiling faces.

In Britain, loneliness has reached epidemic proportions, with researchers estimating it affects up to one in four people. Feeling lonely is a predictor of both health and happiness, and a recent study found a third of women are more afraid of loneliness than cancer. There’s significant irony in the fact that the very technology helping people to meet others via friendship apps might be part of the reason people are feeling isolated in the first place. “We are feeling lonelier than ever partly because of the shallowness of online ‘friendships’, which can occupy much of our time,” says psychotherapist Nancy Colier, author of The Power Of Off. “In our newfound tendency to turn everything over to the online world, we forget that people who might become our friends are everywhere.”

Social network

But why put yourself through the potential humiliation of trying to ‘chat up’ future mates when you can find them on your phone?

Writer Jessica Pan is married and has never used dating apps. She started using Bumble BFF earlier this year after many of her friends had babies and left London. “I realised I didn’t actually know how to make new friends,” she says. “Everyone in London seems to have their set friendship groups, and it’s near impossible to muscle your way in without being viewed as an interloper. There’s something peculiarly vulnerable about trying to befriend someone new.”

After explaining to her husband why there’s a dating app symbol on her phone, Pan says she’s found this experiment in expanding her friend circle interesting and fun. Her forthcoming book, Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want To Come, will explore it in more detail.

“I’ve been on four ‘friend dates’ so far and they were all really cool, funny, smart women,” she says. “There’s a stigma about finding a friend via apps, just like there used to be about finding a partner. People are afraid of seeming desperate. But it’s cool if we all decide it’s cool.”

“In our newfound tendency to turn everything over to the online world, we forget that people who might become our friends are everywhere”

But there isn’t a simple route from swiping right to finding a platonic soulmate. And there’s no getting away from the fact that friendship apps rest on the same rejection-risking questions as dating apps: are they into me? Do I want to see them again?

Mates rates

“I haven’t clicked with some of the women I’ve met, and it was hard to find a way to say that nicely,” says Hadley. “I’ve been ghosted by women I thought seemed like my ‘type’, too. But, unlike dating apps, there are fewer timewasters.” Pan admits she has had some weird messages (“One woman asked for my astrology sign and outright rejected me when I told her I was an Aries”), but feels positive about apps allowing us to expand our networks in a way that was not possible previously.

“Obviously it takes more than a coffee or wine date to form a deep friendship, but I do think it’s possible with perseverance,” she says. “My advice is be open-minded. It’s tempting to just swipe on people exactly like you, but one of my best ‘dates’ so far was with a woman 10 years older. She was brilliant and funny and we’ve already met up again.”

Technology is changing the way we build and maintain our relationships, and while apps for friendship are still some way off being as normalised as those for dating, Colier says they can be very effective. “We are used to doing everything on a screen so it feels practical to look for friendships there, too. Ultimately, how we meet is not as important as how we are with each other,” she says. “We are so distracted and overloaded by the digital world, yet more online communication does not mean more connection – quite the opposite in fact. So if you do meet online it’s vital to move offline and spend plenty of time face to face to deepen the connection.”

If you’re feeling lonely, friendship apps can help you realise that you’re not alone. But the model will only work if more of us join them and put in the time, effort and commitment that real friendship requires.

Images: Landmark Media / Unsplash