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The rise of apps to find friends instead of romance

Stacker spoke with users of both dating and friend-finding apps to learn more about how people use these platforms to make social connections.

Eliza Siegel
Posted 7/10/24

Stacker spoke with users of both dating and friend-finding apps to learn more about how people use these platforms to make social connections.

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The rise of apps to find friends instead of romance

Stacker spoke with users of both dating and friend-finding apps to learn more about how people use these platforms to make social connections.

Posted

Two friends looking at phone together.

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When Jenné Norris, 31, landed a remote job supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts through recruitment in a major technology company, she knew it was time to leave the Washington D.C. metro area for Charlotte, North Carolina. She'd attended college in the Tar Heel State, and many of her friends still lived there. Longing for community and a support system that hadn't existed for her in Washington, Norris arrived in Charlotte in January 2021, only to find the social network wasn't as strong as she once remembered.

Back to square one, Norris turned to a friend-finding app, hoping to meet new people. "I'm trying to connect with more young Black women in Charlotte and cultivate friendships and relationships," Norris told Stacker.

She is far from alone in seeking platonic connections via apps. To learn more about how adults make friends today, Stacker spoke with people using dating and friend-finding apps in search of platonic connections.

Though several friend-finding apps—like Yubo and Bumble's friend mode, Bumble BFF—have been around since the mid-2010s, these platforms' engagement increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the wake of the popularity of general friend-finding apps, more niche platforms for people seeking specific types of friends have emerged, including Peanut, an app for people navigating various life stages of life and fertility, and Pawdate, which pairs dog owners.

Dating apps have long been a means of finding friends rather than romance. In a 2021 OnePulse survey of more than 300 Gen Z respondents between 16 and 24, at least 1 in 3 (35%) said they'd used dating apps to find platonic friends in the year prior. However, this trend isn't limited to Gen Z; a similar WayUp poll among college students back in 2016 showed that over half of the respondents said they were using dating apps to make platonic connections. In 2023, nearly 1 in 4 current or recent online dating app users listed making new friends as a "major reason" for using dating apps, according to the Pew Research Center.

So what's behind this social network renaissance? And how does this desire for more platonic friendships inform our digital connections in a post-pandemic era? Read on to learn how people are approaching making friends in this increasingly lonely new age.

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Finding friends has become more challenging over the past 20 years

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Many traditional avenues for making friends have changed dramatically from two decades ago.

The advent of social media platforms like Myspace and Facebook, as well as more niche internet chat rooms, allowed the act of friend-finding to move into the virtual space. But while some social networks largely let people who already know each other stay connected, other platforms enable users who didn't know each other previously to connect. In 2021, about 2 in 5 Americans had friendships with people they only knew online, according to a Survey Center on American Life study.

During the pandemic, as opportunities for socializing in person disappeared, nearly half of Americans reported losing touch with several friends. Making friends online became an increasingly feasible—and in some cases, necessary—option.

As the proliferation of internet articles offering guidance for making friends as an adult would suggest, many adults struggle to form new friendships, an issue that far predates the pandemic. Children generally have access to social structures with built-in communities, such as school and extracurriculars, that encourage friendships to develop based on common interests or even proximity.

For many adults, however, the addition of increased responsibilities and changing priorities introduced by having serious romantic relationships, children, and careers can make forging new friendships even more difficult.

Many adults are drawn to apps when isolated or relocating

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Like Norris, many people look for friends on apps when moving somewhere new.

With 27.6 million people working remotely during the pandemic, the opportunity to move without taking a job's location into consideration led many workers to move to a new place. However, the ordinary difficulties of arriving in a new city or town without social connections increase markedly when coupled with working from home and having limited opportunities for socializing due to COVID-19.

For Natasha Cosme, a 27-year-old content creator living in Central Florida, working from home on a job largely centered around social media and streaming platforms like Twitch can be isolating. Living with her husband in a new apartment, she realized she wanted to have people over but that most of her friends were online.

Cosme gravitated toward friend-finding apps because she found they removed some of the awkwardness of trying to make a connection with someone out in the real world. Using these apps, she said, ensures everyone's intentions are the same. "You're with other like-minded people that are also looking for a friendship," Cosme told Stacker.

There may be a learning curve for finding friends on apps

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For some, using dating and friend-finding apps to find platonic connections can be challenging. There are groups that experience stigma around seeking friendships, particularly on online platforms, namely men and older adults.

While most friend-finding apps are open to all users regardless of gender or age, the stigma around intimacy between men can make seeking friends difficult. On the other hand, emotionally intimate friendships between women are more normalized, with roughly twice the number of women receiving emotional support from friends than men, according to May 2021 Survey Center on American Life data.

Tim Lee, 28, the owner of a coffee business, encountered difficulties ranging from one-sided conversations to outright pushback when he used a dating app to find friends. After moving to a town near Wilmington, Delaware, he hoped to make platonic connections but found many of the people around him were using dating apps to look for one-night stands. The conversations he struck up with men mostly led nowhere.

One of the toughest parts of his experience was the hostility directed at him, Lee told Stacker. "I got quite a few hate messages from people who couldn't understand why someone would use a dating app for anything but, well, dating," Lee said.

For older adults, the perception of dating or friend-finding apps as being a young person's game is not totally unfounded. More than half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have used a dating app, compared to just 13% of adults over 65, according to Pew Research Center data. Most friend-finding apps, too, are geared toward younger adults and often use a gamelike feature like swiping to keep users engaged.

This isn't the case across the board, however. Mindy Kittay, a 65-year-old business owner living in Boulder, Colorado, decided to try a friend-finding app after feeling lonely and needing a sense of community. After some searching, she connected with a woman who became a good friend. Though Kittay acknowledges she is not the "typical user demographic" of friend-finding apps, she believes the "typical avenues for making friends" have evolved. "I think my experience emphasizes that age isn't a barrier when it comes to forming meaningful connections through these apps," she told Stacker.

For Norris, the process of finding friends using apps in Charlotte got off to a slow start. She chatted with several people, but the conversations didn't seem to lead to in-person meetups. "It kind of felt like I was creating pen pals, which was the opposite of what I was trying to do," she said.

It was only after taking a long break from the app and returning to it with a new sense of intentionality and directness about meeting up that Norris broke through, eventually meeting several women who have become friends.

Cosme has also encountered difficulties with making the transition from in-app conversations to in-person connections. To her, finding meaningful connections on a friend-finding app is much like what she imagines finding a romantic match on a dating app to be—a slow and sometimes difficult process that involves a solid level of commitment. Making friends, she said, "takes a lot of effort, and I'm still working on putting that effort in."

Apps can create vital connections that might never have happened otherwise

Friends playing guitar on beach.

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Despite some of the challenges of making real connections on apps, they also present opportunities for meeting people who exist outside of one's typical social circle or geographic area. In 2022, 37-year-old Amanda Benson decided to sell her home and move into an RV to pursue a nomadic lifestyle. While she enjoys her own company, she has used friend-finding apps to create a sense of community while she travels. "I have met some wonderful friends," Benson told Stacker.

Several others who spoke to Stacker have also used apps to find friends while traveling solo. Jarir Mallah, a 38-year-old American expat living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, frequently uses dating and friend-finding apps during his travels across North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. He's made friends with locals and fellow travelers this way, some of whom have accompanied him on future trips. "I am very clear in my profile that my intent is to meet friends, and I have had more success with that approach compared to setting up a typical dating profile," Mallah told Stacker.

Apart from dating and friend-finding apps, people are using niche-interest apps to form friendships and take them offline, harkening back to a time when joining book clubs and hobby groups was one of the most reliable ways to find friends as an adult.

Arkadiy Romanenko was living in Ukraine when he began using a language exchange app to learn Italian. Through the app, he met three friends, one of whom became his best friend. This friend visited Romanenko and his wife in Kyiv, and they met up in Italy later.

After the war in Ukraine prompted Romanenko and his wife to relocate to Italy in February 2022, they settled near their close friend. "Since then, our friendship has grown stronger, and we spend a lot of time together." Romanenko told Stacker.

Since Norris has been in Charlotte, she's reflected on the kinds of relationships she's looking for as an adult. "We do have this list of expectations of friendships," she said. "How reciprocity looks to you in a friendship, how you expect your friends to show up for you. It's a conversation that you have to have from the beginning so that you're setting those expectations."

Though she's developed solid friendships with several people from the friend-finding app, Norris plans to continue using it to grow her community. "I think I'm gonna meet some great friends," she said. "I think I already have."

Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Paris Close.