Move Over Dating Apps: the Rise of the Friending Apps

Friendship apps may have their day in the sun yet! While they have come a long way in the last 5 years, there are still no household names to speak of. Here I look at the landscape of Friending Apps and provide a framework for how to choose one or more based on your friend-making preferences.

What counts? To be honest, it’s much easier to say what it’s not. Here are some basic criteria I used to create this framework:

  • Not connecting current friends (e.g. Facebook)
  • Not connecting to a professional (e.g. therapist)
  • Not connecting to a customer (e.g. professional services)
  • Not transactional (e.g. money exchanged to support an artist or organisation)

A helpful way to think about these apps is to organise them into groups based on what the people share (the basis for the connection) and type of engagement (in-person vs. virtual). For example, Peanut connects women who are trying to conceive, expecting a child, or raising children. The basis of the connection is the shared experience of fertility and motherhood. The service supports meeting in-person but also has online groups for women to share their experience without meeting.

In contrast, Much Better Adventures is goal-based. They connect people who want to go on a specific type of holiday and don’t want to go alone. Here are examples that illustrate each of the categories, acknowledging that there are some overlaps (for example, Vina considers both location and identity).

Experience Identity Interest Location Goal

Of course, there are a number of apps that people use that aren’t marketed as a way to make friends but nevertheless provide that outcome (intentional or otherwise). Probably the most common are Instagram, Meetup, Slack and Tinder (and other dating apps). As a result, people have created how-to posts to help others do it:

Happy friending!

Friendships change over time

If you’ve met me, you’ve probably heard me say “change is the only constant” more than a few times. It’s been incredible to reflect on how much friendships evolve as an adult. Initially, I focused on building a community in London. Now I’ve decided to shift focus to 3 areas inspired by that exploratory research:

  • Capturing my entire personal network to better understand how my friendships change over time
  • Identifying how significant life events impact those friendships (e.g. moving, marriage, parenthood, divorce, career shifts)
  • Understanding how do new people I meet transition over time between stranger, acquaintance, friend and reliant (and even losing touch)

My entire personal network. Unsurprisingly, the list of people was just over 150 (Dunbar’s number). Among them, 10% are reliants (including family), 60% friends, 20% acquaintances, and 10% are people I’ve lost touch with. Most acquaintances were added only if they introduced me to someone who became either a friend or reliant at some point, as it was very hard to look back over 15 years and accurately capture this group of people. I met 45% through introductions, 30% at public events or ‘in-between’ places, 10% at private events, and 15% through school or work.

Significant life events change my friend groups. This visual captures 2 international moves (Massachusetts to Hong Kong in 2008, Hong Kong to London in 2015), my divorce (2010), and 4 career shifts. It is colour coded by location and the circle sizes represent the strength of the relationship.

I was surprised to see how ‘compartmentalised’ my social groups were during my married years.

After my divorce many years ago, my friends shifted from ‘compartmentalised’ groups to ‘samplers’, with mostly one-to-one friendships. I suspected that pairing up and splitting up can have a significant impact on someone’s personal network, especially if the way they typically spend time with friends is different from their partner (one tight-knit group vs. a diverse set of one-to-one friendships). Little did I know that I would soon have the opportunity to actually test this theory!

In 2017 I met my partner in London. The biggest change after meeting him is the cluster of new friends on the far right. That central circle is my new partner and the cluster to the right is the portion of his London friends that he has introduced me to. He is a ‘tight-knitter’, where most of his local friends have all known each other for a long time. You can also see the introductions I’ve made between my friends and my new partner. Over time, I anticipate that the two clusters on either side of my partner will be linked together through our introductions. Whether those introductions form lasting bonds will impact how this evolves.

Transition to reliants. My reliants include family members I’ve known since birth, others I’ve built relationships with spanning 25+ years, as well as people I’ve gotten to know within the last year. I met an equal number through direct introductions and public events and there are even two that I met serendipitously. They are overwhelmingly male, but very diverse in terms of nationality and ethnicity. Their ages span from mid-twenties to retired, though the majority are 25-44. Almost all of them have moved internationally and have lived in the same city as me at some point, though there are a couple of exceptions. Roughly half of them are married and/or have children however, few had reached this life stage when I met them. Beyond family (2 people), two pairs have relationships with each other that pre-date me. My reliants have been incredibly important to me at various stages of my life.

Even so, there has been a 66% turnover in my reliants over the last 15 years.

Reliants are evenly distributed among locations. Another thing that struck me after creating the visual above is the consistency of number of reliants each year (11-15) and the even distribution of reliants between locations (4-7). Unsurprisingly, this closely reflects the Dunbar “rule of three“. It’s as if my brain makes space for a certain number of very close relationships and adjusts as life events and stage changes occur.

Building a community in London

Can hardly believe it has been over a year since I moved to London! As an anniversary present, London gifted me a serendipitous friend. Until then, every new friend was the result of either a direct introduction or an event that both people intentionally attended. It’s a rare treat to meet anyone during in-between states; in public places, on transit. I treasure those moments because they often expose a ‘small world’ coincidence or a completely new, fascinating world.

Additionally, I participated in Wait But Why‘s inaugural Wait But Hi event in August. They asked their readers to fill out a (long) survey and then matched them in groups based on their interests and preferences. Some people were set up on individual blind dates while others participated in large group educational seminars (and many variations between). What a fascinating experiment in community building.

It’s official! I have completed a full year of The Reliants Project and have learned an incredible amount about how to build a community in a new city – not to mention all the wonderful new friends I have made. Here are my recommendations if you’re moving to a new place:

  • Ask your friends (wherever they live) to make direct introductions to people they know in your new place.
  • Attend public Meetups or other events with less than 45 people on topics that are of particular interest to you (the more niche, the better).
  • Seek out super-connectors and hosts (and then attend their events to meet new people through them).
  • Make time for new relationships to strengthen by meeting one-on-one and introducing them to your own network.

Existing friends don’t directly translate to new friends.

Even after a year in London, I have only received a handful of direct introductions from my pre-existing local network.

There are still several people I knew before that I haven’t managed to meet with myself! Non-local and new friends were significantly more likely to introduce me to people in their network, as were friends from elsewhere that moved to London after me.

There seems to be an inverse relationship between the size of events and friendships made. Conferences, large parties and other groups with more than 45 people seem to make meaningful interactions hard to come by. Direct introductions and small gatherings seem much more effective environments for building friendships, particularly if they are hosted by super-connectors.

Super-connectors increase the number of people you meet but don’t necessarily result in stronger friendships. There are probably 4 people in my network that I would label super-connectors. They have each invited me to 3 events where there were at least 15 people in attendance. Only one of the people I met at these events now falls into my close friend category, but they make up the bulk of my acquaintances.

The rhythm of making friends is cyclical. There seems to be a natural balance between building relationships and maintaining them. While I focused my time over the first 3 months meeting new people, I quickly fell into a pattern of strengthening those relationships rather than continuously seeking new ones. Typical holidays, vacations and work schedules also had an impact on the frequency of events where I could meet new people.

Categorising relationships is incredibly difficult and changes over time. While I didn’t actively track the progression of people from acquaintance to friend to close friend to reliant, a few familiar patterns emerged. The analogy that comes to mind is that of a staircase, where certain catalysts would propel the relationship to a higher step. Most commonly, neither person was motivated to maintain engagement, so we didn’t even become acquaintances.

Sometimes there was mutual interest in building a friendship, but after several failed attempts to meet, it never made it past the acquaintance stage.

If we managed to avoid those pitfalls, it often developed into a friendship. Significant life events have the potential to be both a positive and negative catalyst, best at bringing people closer together through shared experiences or need for support.

The stats. My London personal network has grown about 4x over the last year. That ~90 person network breaks down as follows (again, based on how social networks are often categorised).

  • 50 acquaintances (i.e. see them socially)
  • 20 friends (i.e. would invite to a group dinner)
  • 10 close friends (i.e. often hang out 1-on-1)
  • 7 reliants (i.e. would ask to help move flats)

Of the reliants, 4 were pre-existing friendships, 2 of which grew from a friend to reliant in part due to living in the same city. One of the new reliants was directly introduced to me and I met the other 2 on my own at niche public events. Among the close friends, half were directly introduced and the other half I met at events. Friends are disproportionately from my pre-existing network, but that’s probably because they ‘stood the test of time’ (and distance). I met most ‘acquaintances’ at private events, which makes sense because they are part of the same social circle but I haven’t built a meaningful relationship with them individually.

In order to grow that network, I attended about 25 public events (activity-based events, conferences, Meetups, etc.) and about 40 private events (where more than 3 people participated and I didn’t know everyone). I also met with 30 people that were directly introduced to me. Those introductions came from about 65% non-locals friends, 30% from new local friends and just 5% from pre-existing local friends. The graph below shows how many people I met per month over that time.


What’s next? Right now I’m interested in gathering information about my entire personal network in the hopes that it will provide more insight into how it has changed over time.

Why don’t we discuss making adult friends?

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about adult friendships. Why the adults I know have so few friends, particularly if they are in a relationship or have kids. Why there is such a gap between their social network size and the number of people they actually consider confidants. Why there are so many well-developed tools for finding jobs and partners, but not friendship. My search for answers began by diving into academic research on social networks.

It’s well documented that social networks and the emotional support that they provide are as valuable as sleep, eating well and exercise for long term health and wellness. A personal network is the subset of an individual’s entire network that provides this essential support. Practically speaking, these are the people you reach out to when you have important news to share, serious decisions to make, or need to ask for help. Needless to say, these are the relationships you want to build and maintain as an adult. Above and beyond individual benefits, strong friendships have a huge positive impact on communities as a whole.

Surprisingly, little research has been done about the strength of personal networks of adults after they graduate from college and before they retire. Fewer studies look at this issue since the world became flat (or spiky, depending on your take) and digital social networks became the norm. According to the research I was able to dig up,

an individual’s personal network decreases 1 person per decade throughout adulthood

. It has been suggested that adults now have almost 50% turnover in that personal network every 7 years. Though still debated, studies have also indicated a significant decrease in size of Americans’ personal networks over the last 20 years, The most common reasons for these decreases and fluctuations are marriage, parenthood, divorce and relocation. Relocation seems to have the strongest effect on the size of an adult’s personal network and is increasingly frequent in today’s society.

For some reason, there has been little commentary on the state of adult friendships in the media. David Brooks wrote an op-ed article about cultivating friendships last Fall. Brain Pickings recently published an eloquent piece about the rare gift of friendship. Sherry Turkle, a thought leader on the impact of technology on human interaction, has spoken often about today’s weak support networks. While there are many posts with step by step guidelines for how to make friends, there is little discussion about why these trends exist and how society should address them.

After exploring these readings, I was inspired to map my social network. There is a handy tool called Socilab that can help you do this using your LinkedIn connections. Each person in your network becomes a node and their relationships to each other are the links between nodes. It was easy to immediately identify the different clusters that make up a significant portion of my network: Hong Kong (where I have lived for the last 7 years), Industrial Design community (my trained profession) and Georgia Tech (where I attended university). You can also see the centrality and closeness of key people in your network, among other characteristics. In my case, there are 3 people who have the most connections among my network, none of whom are within my personal network now. Each of them played an important role at different stages of my life. Of course, this visualisation focuses more on my professional network and does not directly reflect my personal network nor how it has changed over time. Unfortunately, it seems that it is not possible to map your Facebook social network. If anyone finds a tool that works, please share in the comments.

In order to better understand my personal network, I made a list of the people whom I count among my close friends today. For good measure, I also attempted to create lists for both 2008 and 2001 (looking back every 7 years to the beginning of adulthood).

My personal network had more than 75% turnover every 7 years, during which I relocated twice, got married and divorced.

Afterwards, I used a mind network graph to visualise how I met each of those people. While you often hear, “If you want to make friends, join a club”, I can only trace one of my close friends back to such a beginning. Even the connections between my close friends and my wider friend network are loose at best.

What’s your take? I’d love to know if these observations ring true. Try out these simple exercises and see what you uncover. If you’re aware of an ongoing discussion around adult friendship happening online or off, I’d love to hear about it!