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I’m waiting outside a crowded pub near Waterloo with that confusing, cheek-flushing combination of excitement and first-meet flutters. I have a mental screenshot of Alex* and Sabrina*’s profiles saved in my head — Alex in a suit on some fancy looking rooftop, and Sabrina in a girl gang at Glastonbury — and wonder how different they’ll both look in real life. Presumably Glasto pics were taken pre-pandemic — will Sabrina look anything like that anymore? Will we have as much in common as our profiles suggest? And what’s my go-to excuse if I fancy an early exit?
In many ways, it feels exactly like the moments before a Hinge date - or perhaps one on hot new polyamory app Feeld. A carefully-curated profile in an attempt to make myself look fun yet approachable. A few weeks of swiping to see what’s out there. A time and a place arranged with seven days to go.
But Alex, Sabrina and I aren’t interested in each other romantically and mercifully we don’t have to worry about the will-it-won’t-it-happen kiss at the end of the night — at least I hope not, or I’ve been catfished and it’s going to be a really awkward one to explain to my boyfriend. Having said that, perhaps I’d rather it was some kind of three-way hook-up because it would save me from having to make an embarassing public admission: I’m Katie, I’m 28 and I’ve been on the apps to find new friends.
I say the last part quietly because in recent months have shown me the hard way that it’s something of a divisive issue — less so the app part, more so the fact that I’m still keen on expanding my social circle. “Why would you bother?” was the bemused reaction of my university BFFs when I revealed I actually quite liked meeting their schoolmates at parties because it’s a chance to meet new people. “But you have a boyfriend!” one laughed when I told her the banker I was texting under the table was a friend I’d met online.
Apparently being in a happy relationship and living in the same city as dozens of my friends should be enough by now, especially when I’m already the one teased by my flatmates for never being in. I have dozens of close, caring, fun-loving friends already — why on earth would I want any more?
The truth is that lockdown was a brutal but necessary reminder that I won’t always be able to rely on old friends when the going gets tough. Nor do I always want to. Whisper it, but as BFFs marry, move away and, in some cases, remain in a semi-permanent state of lockdown long after restrictions have lifted, I’m not actually that similar to a lot of them any more. I’m only 28, why should friend-making really have to stop?
If this fact makes me greedy, at least I’m not alone: recent forays into the world of new adult friend-making have assured me there are plenty of likeminded Londoners looking for new social circles, too. “It’s all about making meaningful connections,” says Natalia Vodianova, 40, one such connection-seeker, who also happens to be a top Russian supermodel, UN Goodwill Ambassador, serial entrepreneur and one of the co-founders of Locals.org, the app that brought me together with new pals Alex and Sabrina.
The angel investor and mother-of-five founded the people-matching app with fellow entrepreneur friends Timon Afinsky, Sergei Gonchar and Eugene Nevgen last year in a bid to counter “toxic” social media and tackle the post-pandemic loneliness crisis. Members can join for free and are asked to create a profile before swiping, but the algorithm is wired differently to Hinge and Feeld to get people off the app as quickly as possible. Rather than being shown other people’s profiles, you’re shown IRL events, from speed-socialising events with celebrity DJ Fat Tony to boozy book clubs and walks on Hampstead Heath. Each event asks for a minimum £5 donation to the hosts’ chosen charity — an added feelgood factor and an easy icebreaker. But can innocent platonic friendships really be formed between strangers who match online? Do cool, normal people actually sign up? And can these kinds of connections really last?
Clearly they do and they can, if Vodianova’s app is anything to go by. More than 20,000 users have registered in London and Los Angeles so far, from city newbies to longstanding urbanites looking for new social circles. For many, the app has quickly become the overwhelming architecture of their social life. “It’s a part of my everyday,” says Mongolian retail exec Zulsaran Be, 31, calling her Locals tribe “the family [she doesn’t] have in London”. She’s heard of breakfasts at Chiltern Firehouse that have turned into nights out clubbing and knows several long-term Locals couples. “I’m just waiting for the first Locals wedding now,” she adds.
Others, like my new friend Sabrina, 37, have lived in London since university but turned to the apps when friends started moving to the countryside. “I’ve been to 23 [Locals events] in the last month,” she tells me as she introduces me to Simon, a lawyer pal she met through another friend-making app MeetUp, which she’s been using for five years on and off (she prefers Locals because she can handpick who comes to her events). Together with Bumble’s platonic friend-making feature Bumble BFF, friend-making apps have drawn her up a ready-made, digitally-generated social life: group 1Rebel classes on Mondays, a new dog-walking pal just round the corner, a 100-person Bridgerton-themed ball this weekend. In February, she and a dozen other Locals users jetted off on a week-long ski trip to the Alps.
So why have apps like Vodianova’s attracted such a buzz? The truth of it seems to be a combination of burgeoning tech and a post-Covid craving for real-world experiences. Apps like MeetUp, Nextdoor and Bumble BFF have been forging platonic connections for years now (Bumble says 15 per cent of its users are currently using the BFF feature), but recent months have seen a fresh wave of online platforms specifically centred around offline connection - Apple even chose apps focused around “connection” as its 2021 Trend of the Year last year.
Gen-Zers are reportedly all over Wink, an LA-founded friend-making app that links directly to Snapchat. Battersea-based BuddyUp promises to help Londoners find a running partner in their local postcode. And female-focused Vina promises to connect “amazing women” — an enticing proposition until it asks me whether I’m more of a “happy-hour girl”, “funemployed” or a “Mary Jane”. The “busy, normal(ish) and likes going to the pub at the weekend” category must have been experiencing a glitch.
Do cool, normal people actually sign up to get matched online... and can the connections really last?
On a serious note though, it’s about time, too. For many Londoners, last year’s grand reopening was not a case of shouting “freedom day!” and springing back to their pre-pandemic social life, but one of relation- and friend-ship breakups, shrinking WhatsApp groups and a slow realisation that many friends had happily become hermits in lockdown and were unlikely to ever return to the after-work-drinks pals they were before.
“It’s not a very sexy subject,” says Afinsky, Vodianova’s co-founder and an angel investor, of the loneliness crisis that’s been building since then. “But it’s an important one”. Our beloved capital is one of the loneliest cities in the world and loneliness is apparently the number one fear among young people today, ranking ahead of losing a home or a job. A concerning 42 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds say they feel lonely at least a few times a week and 42 per cent of millennial women say they’re more afraid of loneliness than a cancer diagnosis — a problem that researchers interestingly found to be unaffected by relationship status. Those in couples are just as likely to feel lonely as those who are single.
Vodianova says many members come to events together as couples and that while the app does host singles events, dating is a happy outcome rather than the aim. In fact, a noticeable number of (female) members I meet say it wasn’t a romantic breakup that triggered their move onto Locals, but a friendship one. “When my best friend and I drifted, I honestly felt lonelier than I’d done after my divorce,” comms exec Lauren, 38, tells me over a meetup at Dishoom.
Both she and Afinsky describe themselves as outgoing introverts — “a large number of our users are,” Afinsky says — but even introverts need connection. Researchers say loneliness is just as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, with lonely people at a 26 per cent higher risk of dying prematurely than those with healthy social relationships.
For others like me, it’s less about loneliness and more about a desire for newness. As sociable Londoner with with a busy job, a great boyfriend and dozens of fantastic friends on my doorstep, I might not fit the conventional lonely stereotype. But like thousands across the capital, I still crave the buzz of new connections and the six months I spent cooped up at my parents’ house in lockdown only highlighted this.
In the 14 months since moving back to London, I’ve found new housemates, taken up choir and joined a running club — and the friendships I’ve found through each one have only made me crave new connections more. My new flatmate has become my go-to for an honest outfit opinion, my new run buddy is the first-person I’ll hit up for career advice, and his girlfriend has a more similar taste in podcasts to me than anyone I’ve met. Why would I want to stop there when there could be new BFFs just round the corner?
“I’m like you — I love, love, love meeting new people,” Vodianova tells me from her home in Paris. Just because she and her co-founders are all married, that doesn’t mean they don’t crave that buzz of meeting new people — in fact, they met each other that way: Vodianova and Afinsky through a fundraising event in London 15 years ago; Afinsky and Nevgen through playing polo.
Vodianova herself has five children, dozens of friends and 3.4m followers on Instagram, but she still goes to events herself because “nothing can replace the power of connection through experience”, she says. It’s like those early days of going on fun activity dates, without the complication of sex or finding ‘the one’ — plus you bond faster through experiences than you do just dinner or drinks. “If you’re jumping in a frozen lake with a bunch of new people, you’ll remember that for the rest of your life.”
For users like Vodianova and me, the main draw-factor seems to be about meeting people with shared interests and shared rhythms. I met my schoolfriends 20 years ago now — should we really be surprised or offended if our hobbies and routines don’t align anymore? Surely it’s better to find friends who actually want to join a choir or go cycling at weekends together? And equally, who am I to coax them out of their domestic married bubbles for a night out if they don’t actually want to leave?
Most of Lucy’s friends have children, but she still wants to go out and do the things they gave up in their 20s
Another new digitally-matched mate Lucy*, a fashion buyer, agrees. At 35, most of her friendship circle had started having children and if it was up to them, her social life would quickly have been reduced to the occasional weeknight dinner and once-a-year holiday. “I still love those friends,” she tells me over a Saturday morning cycle in Richmond. “But they just weren’t enough anymore. I still wanted to go out and meet people and do the things they gave up in their late twenties — our lives weren’t in sync and I wasn’t prepared to sit around and wait.”
For people like Lucy, apps like Locals offer a ready-made, full-time social life. A scroll through app pulls up everything from podcast recording with David to an 18-person house party at Selim’s house in E1 this weekend. Some events sound easier for building connections than others (“Escape Room: Psycopath Den”, anyone?), and I quickly find myself scrolling through some more questionable-sounding activities, like “street magic” with west Londoner Aaron, 31, who fancies showing people his “magic tricks”, and Luke, 26, who lives two miles away and wants to “watch a movie together” at his flat on Friday night and I suspect might be on the wrong app altogether.
Vodianova assures me the app has strict safeguarding protocols in place. Members have to be accepted into events and users can flag unhealthy conversations. But if there’s one thing you can’t fault her app for, it’s that there really is something for everyone. Skills-focused activities make up a significant portion of events, with members offering skateboarding lessons and learn-how-to-be-a-comedian workshops; and oddly specific event descriptions, like “coffee and chat about NFTs” and “let’s go for a dogwalk and talk healthcare”. I suppose this is exactly the point, though, according to Vodianova and her gang: if you can’t ask your existing friends to humour your niche new passion for unicycling or pole-dancing-and-brunch, why not find new ones who will?
The day after my drinks with Alex and Sabrina, my boyfriend spots my face breaking into a grin as a stream of in-jokes about last night’s group WhatsApp pic pop up on my phone. “So what does this Alex person looks like?” he asks, leaning over to look at my phone. “She doesn’t really look like that, to be honest,” I hear myself saying as I scroll through her profile reel. “She’s really fun — and we have a weird number of mutual friends so we can just tell everyone we met at a party.”
I catch myself, realising I’ve got ahead of myself in picturing mine and Alex’s long blossoming friendship together. She could still bail on our theatre trip next weekend, or worse: ghost me altogether. This whole online friendship thing isn’t so dissimilar to dating, really — but at least this time, I can be as greedy as I like.
*Names have been changed to protect identities