The loneliness crisis: can you really make friends on an app?

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Stylist Team
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Britain has been dubbed the “loneliness capital of Europe”, with nine million of us admitting that we “always or often” feel lonely.

Enter Hey! Vina, an app that acts as a “Tinder for friendship” and that has just launched here in the UK after its resounding success in the States. But can you really engineer the subtle nuance of friendship using your phone? Stylist contributor Gwendolyn Smith, 25, gives it a go...

It’s eight o’clock on a Friday evening and I’m hovering nervously near the bar in a softly-lit retro joint in Notting Hill. I’ve brushed my hair. There’s a dark smudge on each of my eyelids that a charitable sort might refer to as a smoky eye.

I bare a cheesy grin at the camera view of my iPhone to check that no, there isn’t an unsightly flap of spinach stuck to every one of my teeth, before tapping out a text to my friend. She’s received 14 messages from me in the last minute, each a variant on the words: “Argh! What if they’re a lunatic?!!!”

You guessed it: I’m on a date. But this is no standard hook-up. Yes, we met on an app – the mainstay of modern romance – and if the venue’s extensive cocktail menu is anything to go by, the usual diffident stuttering will be replaced by inebriated rambling 20 minutes in. But the tone is squad goals rather than snogging – and that’s not just the coy description I’ll be giving my mother. For I’m trying out Hey! Vina, an iPhone app which helps women make friends.

It launched in 2015 in America and was so successful – 110,000 users signed up in the first six months – that it’s now available worldwide. What with my belief that running a brush through one’s hair constitutes a special effort, and my tendency to hallucinate slimy green things snaking around my canines, I obviously have no friends. So I signed up as 2017 dawned, in a bid to turn my social life around.

Alright. It wasn’t as dire as that. There’s one pal at least (the poor love being bombarded with the hysterical texts) and in fact, when I first heard about the app I thought it was a nice idea – but not for me. I don’t need to spend evenings swapping platitudes with strangers online, I thought. I’ve got lovely chums in real life. Yet modern existence tends towards the temporary: people live nearby for a year or so before rushing off to pastures new.

Alongside that, plans are waylaid by love lives, long working hours and frequent bouts of flakiness: messages beginning ‘Sorry to bail, but…’ make up an unnervingly sizeable chunk of my inbox.

So I’m not surprised that in 2014 the Office of National Statistics found Britain to be the loneliness capital of Europe. Nor that a survey by the Mental Health Foundation discovered 18 to 34-year-olds were more likely to feel lonely than the over-55s.

Modern existence tends towards the temporary: people live nearby for a year or so before rushing off to pastures new.

On second thoughts then, I download the app. Fairly quickly, a voice in my head pipes up about whether not always having someone to go to a sample sale with is such a bad thing after all. Because it all seems... a little bit lame.

Sign-ups are subjected to a stream of emetic near-daily pep talks via the medium of push notifications (Your new #squad is out there waiting for you… [dancing girl emoji x2]). You’re prompted to ‘find out who you really are’ by deciphering a series of squiggly water colours. I am declared 'ambitious' after deciding that a pointy purple thing looks a bit like a mountain and an orange blob slightly similar to a crab. This character trait is immediately broadcast on my profile. Great. Now all of my potential buddies will know me for the ruthless schemer I am.

Swiping Tinder-style through the other so-called vinas is fun, though – and reassuring. I’d half expected it to be full of weirdos, but no-one conveys a penchant for roasting babies or making coats out of kittens.

There’s a sizeable contingent who’ve just moved to the UK from abroad; I come across an Australian who works in radio and wants to have feminist rants over beer and a Swedish waitress who’s looking for a boxing companion. I flick my finger in the ‘Hey!’ direction for a bunch of women who seem interesting, and – once it dawns on me that my About Me section shouldn’t read like a Linked In profile – I end up with half a dozen matches.

I’d half expected it to be full of weirdos, but no one conveys a penchant for roasting babies or making coats out of kittens.

Here, the cringey-ness kicks back in. Matching prompts the company’s almost unforgivably chirpy CEO Olivia to suggest the two of you meet up straight away. Presuming her impressive title means she knows what she’s doing, I fire off several bossy lists detailing my availability over the week ahead. No-one replies.

The real-life friend suggests I concentrate on building up a rapport before demanding people choose between branches of Le Pain Quotidien near Goodge Street. This has more success - i.e. people reply. Nevertheless, it’s hard to sustain exchanges without being able to fall back on flirtation, as you would when using a dating app (or so I’m told; I’m one of those lemons who has stayed with their university boyfriend, so in truth I’m fumbling in the dark here).

Still, a few brave souls look beyond my abominable chat, including the woman who sheepishly taps me on the shoulder in the Notting Hill bar. We hug, swap feeble small-talk (‘Your hair is blonde now! It was brown in your profile picture! Incredible!’), and swig spirits to stave off the initial stiffness. My catastrophising is unfounded: she’s not - openly, at least - a lunatic. The only black mark is that she clutches a suitcase for the full duration of the evening, which seems an ominous reminder of what drove me here in the first place: the aforementioned transience of modern life.

Is there a spark? It’s hard to tell. By the time I teeter towards my taxi home the letters ‘B’ ‘F’ and ‘F’ are bobbing in my mind’s eye, but I don’t hear from her again until a few weeks later. After that communication is patchy from both parties.

Meeting my next match is less daunting, probably because it’s a quick cuppa rather than a full-on Friday night. As we jabber as if we’ve known each other for, well, more than five minutes, I’m filled with a warm, first term at Malory Towers-style hope that I’ve struck upon the friend version of The One. Panic mounts when she pelts off at the end for a (strangely-timed) haircut, but hope is restored when she adds me on Facebook the next day.

So, can you really swipe yourself a bestie? It’s not as simple as that. Friendships take months, even years, to form; don’t just – ahem – command strangers to meet you for coffee and expect to gas away as if you’re in The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants.

An app can’t contrive the humdrum, everyday intimacy that forges most bonds. You can, though – and signing up presents people it’ll seem worth doing so for.

With that in mind, I’m not going to bail on Hey! Vina just yet.