Loneliness is taking friend-making apps mainstream

American adults are lonely — and done waiting on friendship to find them IRL

When software engineer Andrew Fleer moved to Omaha, he used the internet to make new connections and friends. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)
9 min

On a gloomy June afternoon, about 20 people gathered around a pop-up picnic table in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Attendees wore name tags like “spam” and “suchwow” to help others connect their online usernames to their actual faces. These folks usually hang out on the chat app Discord, but today they’re gathering in the flesh.

Among them is Greg Walton, a 31-year-old self-described loner who hasn’t posted anything in the forum yet. It’s Walton’s second time at one of this group’s meetups, and the day started off bumpy: Walton couldn’t find the group and felt nervous to ask for directions.

But now they look at ease chatting in a circle about Indian cuisine. When a new person walks up, Walton steps back, widening the circle to make room. As a child, Walton says they didn’t have many real-life friends and instead made friends online. But after months in isolation during the coronavirus pandemic, they decided something had to give. They downloaded the Meetup app and started searching for real-life friends. It eventually led them to a forum on Discord.

“People say, ‘Once you put yourself out there once or twice, it gets easy,’” they said. “But nobody teaches you how to put yourself out there.”

While online dating took over its analog predecessor as the most common way romantic couples meet, online friend-making has received relatively little attention. Now, post-pandemic loneliness is driving young adults like Walton to look for friends more intentionally and, for many, that means turning to the internet.

Online friend-finding destinations — from tiny Discord chatrooms to Reddit community boards to matchmaking apps like Bumble where you swipe “yes” or “no” on the faces of potential companions — are filling the gap for young adults who want more platonic connections. That is, if they can get past the perceived embarrassment of asking for friends.

Adult friend-making looks different for people like Walton from how it looked for their parents. The coronavirus pandemic sent millions of young people home from high school, college and the workplace. Those ages 18 to 25 saw the biggest spike in loneliness during the pandemic, according to one Harvard University study. Attendance at group activities like religious gatherings and recreational sports is dropping fastest among millennials and Generation Z. And long hours and low wages make it tough to find free time to socialize. Young adults find themselves rubbing shoulders with new people less often, they say, and striking up conversations with strangers feels weird.

Meeting friends online is normal. Here’s how to do it.

Michael Cotz, who organized the June meetup with Walton and others, said that “looking for friends” is the most common introductory post on their 10,000-member Discord forum, but people tend to disappear after that. At the meetup, Michael was flitting between clusters of people in his slick cropped blazer and neon orange beanie, letting the social vibes take shape naturally, he said.

“I make a lot of events like this, where there’s a blob of people and an opportunity to meet them,” he said.

But Cotz can’t force the lightning of friendship to strike.

“I’m never going to be like, ‘Now kiss,’” he said.

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With millions of Americans suffering from loneliness, this series examines how technology brings us together but also tears us apart.
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Adult friendship is touchy, Cotz and others said. Everyone wants to be effortlessly surrounded by loved ones, so putting work into making friends can be embarrassing. While the search for romance feels normal, and even noble, actively seeking friends as an adult — and saying that openly on apps or social media — still carries stigma, friend-seekers said.

“I knew about friend apps when I was in school, but I was like, ‘Who would go on that? Someone really desperate for friends?’” 23-year-old Lincoln Hawks said. “Then I found myself in Chicago for an internship over the summer, and I was completely by myself, desperate for friends.”

Hawks downloaded the app Bumble, known for its flagship dating product, and set up a profile in “BFF” mode, which signaled to other users that he was interested in friendships rather than romance. He swiped through profiles of other friend-seekers, where they shared photos, autobiographical blurbs and their preferences on everything including cannabis and religion. He’d swipe right on someone’s profile to indicate his interest, and if the person reciprocated, the two could message to set up a meeting or just chat.

Faced with hundreds of potential friends, Hawks prioritized “banter” to decide who to meet up with — can this person recognize a joke and keep it rolling? In his first Bumble conversation with his now-best friend, the two traded bits about their landlords. By contrast, when a different user referenced the reality TV show “Dance Moms” in her profile, Hawks sent her a meme based on the show. She responded “ha-ha”: the dreaded single-word answer. Hawks knew the friendship was doomed, he said.

Online friend-making has been around in some form since dial-up. Back in the early 2000s, 38-year-old Phil Leif used to make friends on Craigslist when he’d move to a new city, the Brooklyn dweller said. He made friends from Craigslist in D.C., San Francisco, Seattle and New York City as he bounced to new jobs and new places — he counted more than a dozen “long-term relationships” that came of it.

Back then, using the internet to make real-life connections felt subversive, Leif said.

“We were all like, ‘Hey, let’s try this weird experiment and see what happens,’” he said. “And in that culture, people were still running news articles with headlines like ‘What is the internet?’”

Today, friendships that play out entirely in chatrooms or on social media are common. According to data from Bumble, 66 percent of Gen Z respondents the company surveyed said they’ve made friends online and 41 percent felt intimidated approaching people in person.

Still, many young adults are hungry for more connection. In its 2023 “State of Friendships” report, Meetup said that “friendship” has been the most-searched term on the app since July 2021, while “Strategies for Ending Loneliness,” a seminar on friend-making, was one of the top-attended gatherings of 2022.

Young adults are done waiting for IRL (in real life) friends

People who used Bumble, Meetup and other apps to make friends say they were driven by necessity. Coronavirus outbreaks, moving to new cities and the stiltedness of meeting strangers in person all nudged them toward an online approach. Despite widespread loneliness and the accessibility of making friends online, Leif said he still knows people who are uncomfortable with the idea.

Jess Colopy, a 25-year-old in Chicago, had to reach a place of “pretty deep loneliness” before she was willing to download Bumble for Friends and start searching, she said. Her therapist recommended that she try it after a bad breakup and pandemic restrictions left Colopy longing for the types of friendships she had in college — intimate and low fuss.

Colopy had to adjust her vision of an ideal friend as she went. At first, she focused on connecting with introverts like herself, but text conversations and friend dates kept fizzling into awkward silence. (She once spent two hours walking in circles with a would-be friend because neither of them could decide where to eat dinner.) Eventually, she shifted her strategy and started swiping “yes” on anyone who looked like the “type of person that would come up to you at a bar and start having a conversation about nothing.”

It worked. Colopy matched up with a group of extroverts and never looked back.

“I don’t think I’d ever have reached that point without the apps, probably because I am just not outgoing enough to meet that many people,” she said.

Hayley Leibson, who co-founded the networking app Lunchclub, said the differences between online dating and online friend-making can be frustrating for friend-seekers. Endless swiping, choice overload and judging people at a glance have become table stakes for internet romance, Leibson said, but she doesn’t think most people want to make friends that way.

While dating comes with a set of shared expectations, friend-app users often find themselves making the rules up as they go. What’s the appropriate length and setting for a first meetup? Is it weird to ask personal questions? What happens if we don’t like each other? Those questions plagued app users as they navigated new friendships, they said. Val Gudino, a 24-year-old student in Seattle, said her biggest concern about friend apps is that she can’t read people’s intentions.

Sometimes, expectations are plainly mismatched. Jerome Choo, a 32-year-old in Houston, set up a Bumble for Friends profile with his wife after she mentioned she’d like to meet friends in their area. The two of them sat down together eager to swipe through potential pals, but something seemed off, Choo said: Almost every profile showed people looking for additional sex partners rather than friends.

They laughed it off, he said, but they also may have been looking for an excuse to give it up.

“Maybe we were burdened by the societal faux pas that we had in the back of our minds, which is that it’s a little weird to be looking for a platonic friendship, even though this app is already saying it’s okay,” Choo said.

Bumble for Friends specifically champions platonic connections,” said Danielle Bayard Jackson, a professional friendship coach who works with Bumble and spoke on behalf of the company. “I think people enjoy that because they feel safe knowing what they’re signing up for and meeting people with compatible interests.”

Back at the Discord meetup, Cotz started folding the picnic table. A cold wind was picking up, and it was time to go home.

Making adult friends requires work and vulnerability, which is a lot to ask from people who are lonely, different or tired, Walton said, blinking back tears while the last few attendees huddled nearby.

You won’t make a friend the first time you show up, Walton said, or even the second, because friendship requires revealing yourself over time. But real friends are out there, and the fear and ambiguity are worth it.

“Yeah, you might feel like a creep, but hopefully somebody will help you,” they said. “First, you have to show that you’re trying.”

Feeling loneliness is not new, but it is normal and we want to talk about it. What's your experience with loneliness? Does tech make it better or worse? (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

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