in Tech

Here’s Why You Can’t Make New Friends Online

Nowadays, every new college graduate enters a familiar cycle. They graduate, move to a new city to start a job, are excited to start a new life in a new place, and…..end up lonely. Most of them have never encountered a situation like this before – their last major shift was to college, where thousands of people their age live only a few dorm halls away. Now in the real world, they have no friends outside of work, and don’t know how to find any. They browse sites like Meetup.com and the Facebook calendars of local hotspots hoping to find friends, or give the bar scene a try and usually wind up disappointed. What do they do next?

In the past, they’d suck it up, grind it out over the next 18 months, and eventually find people they actually want to spend time with. At least, hat’s what my parents told me they had to do. But today, the members of the digital generation want better. Today, we say to ourselves ‘This is a simple problem, all we have to do is connect lonely new grads with others – there should be an app for that!

Existing options are imperfect:

  • Swarm lets you casually see who is up to hang out, but only among your existing friends.
  • Meetup does a good job of orienting communities around interests, but the events are structured weeks in advance, and hew closely to abstract interests like the outdoors, motherhood, or entrepreneurship.
  • Tinder and other dating apps do a great job of connecting you to vetted strangers, but only under romantic auspices, which means users can run into trouble using them as actual friend finding resources.
Excuse my hand-drawn Venn diagram

Excuse my hand-drawn Venn diagram

So they go around telling their friends about this great idea they have for an app that helps city transplants find new friends. I’ve had this idea, my buddies from college had this idea, and I still  hear about it from strangers at parties. Yet here we are, and I don’t see an app matching that description in the App Store. Why is that?

Friends are a Threshold Need

I think it’s because friends are a threshold need. When you don’t have any, you really miss them. But once you have enough to keep you satisfied, you don’t spend any time looking for more. The market for new friends is small and transitory, because once somebody finds friends they’re happy with – they don’t want to spend time with strangers who might not be a good fit. With the limited hours per week your new job affords, you realize that you don’t need as expansive of a social circle as you did in college, and all you want somebody to accompany you on your favorite pastimes.

Exactly how many friends you need to reach this threshold depends on the person. For me, I might need an outgoing friend willing to accompany me out to bars, some nerdy friends to play board games with, and an adventurous buddy to go out mountain biking with. If I lack any one of those, I’ll go seek out someone to be my partner in crime, but once I have one, I’m not texting everyone I know asking who is free this weekend.

Once you reach that surprisingly low bar of friends, your desire to take chances on strangers from the internet drops considerably. You already know you like Matt – why go with some possible creeper from an app? You don’t bother.

Proof by Couchsurfing

I realized this firsthand as a member of the CouchSurfing community in Barcelona. Surfing in CS is a no-brainer; you get a place to sleep and a new friend in whichever city you end up in. But hosting is tough – you have to put up with strangers in the comfort of your own house, who you may not get along with.

In my first semester at Barcelona, I lived with four American ‘bros’ whose main pastimes were watching sports, smoking weed, and getting  drunk in the same bar repeatedly. I didn’t spend much time with them, and it turned out that spending time hosting CouchSurfers was a perfect replacement. They’d spend a few nights on our couch, leaving after they had told me all about their home country, but before we had tired of each others’ company. But in my second semester, I lived with four local Catalans, with whom I got along beautifully. They showed me the authentic local spots, taught me Spanish, and were young enough to share my style of fun.

The statistics speak for themselves – in my first semester, I had one or two surfers on my couch every single week. In my second, I didn’t host a single person. It wasn’t even a conscious decision – I was simply too busy having fun with my flatmates to spare time or energy on strangers. My need for new friends was above the threshold, so I didn’t go looking for more.

I think this same paradigm is why the ‘new grad social app’ has failed to manifest itself successfully. If you have just a few friends, you’re not longer in the market for more, since you’re too busy with the old ones. So the target market for such an app is essentially limited to new city transplants in the first few months of their arrival – and once they find friends they stop whining.

The Perfect App

That doesn’t mean there isn’t an opportunity here. The more adventurous of us still welcome new people in our lives, and there’s a constant stream of au pairs, foreign students, and new city transplants who are always looking to meet locals.

Such an app would need to orient itself around easily approachable events similar to bar trivia nights, but far more welcoming. Couchsurfing offered regular meetups outside of the hosting mechanic that I still attend, because we all have a love of Couchsurfing in common, which makes it easy to walk up to strangers and ask ‘Are you with Couchsurfing?’. Even if they weren’t, bam, we’re off and talking. There’s no reason why that can’t work for an app as well.

Any app looking to connect strangers will need to facilitate a similar cohesion around itself. It will need the casual vibe of Swarm, the universal accessibility of Meetup.com, and the vetted strangers aspect of dating apps like Tinder. And it will need to make the strangers compelling enough that someone with enough friends already will be interested in meeting them. It’s a tall order, but hey, the target demographic is full of college-educated people who want it – maybe next year’s batch can puzzle this one out.

  • jaquelind

    Nice post corey very interesting, u should.develop one!