‘What benefits are there to being friends with you?’ Edward asks.
Thinking I’m being funny, I reply, ‘none’. A notification tells me he’s instantly unmatched. You missed out, Ted: I’m a fucking great friend.
There’s a loneliness epidemic in London right now. Earlier this year, international property company Greystar Europe named London the British city where it’s hardest to make friends. Two-fifths of those quizzed were nervous about reaching out to new people. Meanwhile, the Campaign to End Loneliness reported that our city was ‘severely lonely’, with data showing that 700,000 Londoners feel that way ‘most’ or ‘all of the time’.
I’m a lonely Londoner. Last November, I came crashing out of a five-year relationship. Once the dust settled, I realised that I wanted to meet people who had no connection to that part of my life. Work friends are all well and good, but chatting about ‘White Lotus’ on Slack and sharing a Pret coffee subscription wasn’t what I needed. I wanted to meet new people. It was my friend Charlie who first suggested using dating apps to make friends. ‘I use dating apps actively to date,’ he said. ‘But then the outcome of those dates can be friendship.’ Okay, so what if I went on them exclusively to make friends – surely that would work?
I was about to find out if it were possible to create meaningful, platonic connections online. It would test my patience – and more importantly, my ego – through a tumultuous four-month period.
Styling and profiling
Figuring out which apps to go on was a task in itself. London is a city of subcultures, so let me assure you that whichever niche you fall into, there’s dating software specifically designed for you. Beyond the obvious ones, there’s Pom (for music lovers), Fitafy (for gym bunnies) and even the newly launched Grazer (a new vegan one fronted by Bimini, with the confusing tagline ‘fuck vegans’). Tempting, but too niche for what I had in mind.
All of these were alien to me. The last time I was on the apps was six years ago when there was just Tinder and Grindr, so instead of overwhelming myself with dozens of profiles, I settled on what I thought was a manageable four.
The obvious first choice was Hinge, which gained popularity in 2017 after becoming a ubiquitous presence in the ‘Weddings’ section of the New York Times. It claims to be based on a Nobel-Prize-winning algorithm, ‘that helps you go on better-quality dates, not just more dates’. The ability to choose prompts appealed; I could showcase my glittering personality and friendship potential.
Even though Feeld was set up in 2014, I’d only started hearing about it in the past year or so. Created, as it says, ‘to elevate the human experience of sexuality and relationships’, it’s a platform that champions bringing together likeminded people. It also had a designated ‘friendship’ tag, so I thought I’d check it out.
I’d always been intrigued by Raya, a gatekeeper of high-fliers to date, network and connect socially. It’s spread by word of mouth since its inception in 2015, with celebrities like FKA Twigs, Niall Horan and Channing Tatum (pre-Zoë Kravitz) all rumoured to be users. This was my chance to get with the elite. Platonically.
Then you’ve got Bumble BFF, an offshoot of the popular dating app that says it’s ‘a simplified way to create meaningful friendship’. I chose it as a sort of control to see if I could make friends through an app specifically designed for this task. Frankly, if that one didn’t work, it was a clear sign that I was a complete and utter loser who was destined to die friendless and alone.
The process of choosing pictures had me over-analysing every single image of me from the past year. I wanted to make sure I looked friend-worthy, and in no way looking for something romantic. I regressed to a sort of Victorian prudishness, where just the sight of a naked shoulder felt over-revealing. Eventually, I picked one of me at a festival (fun!), a close-up of my face (informative!) and a couple with friends (look, I already have some!).
Then came the actual words, where I made it painfully clear that I was only looking for friends, along with prompts about my interests in un-sexy guitar music and a non-flirtatious anecdote about saving my brother from being attacked by a monkey (I thought it would be a comical image that showed off my ability to double-up as a bodyguard and, crucially, not very sexy).
Raya was a whole other beast. It required careful vetting and a referral process. Luckily, I had a man on the inside to help push me forward. After meticulously filling out a form, bigging myself up like some kind of marketing bro you’d meet at an All Bar One in Clapham, I was put on a waiting list with no end date.
The initial surge
Pressing ‘publish’ on these profiles was like hitting ‘fire’ on a small nuclear missile launch. Within ten minutes of being on Hinge, I had dozens and dozens of likes. It was mostly men and a lot of sexually charged comments like ‘you look like you’d be good in bed’, and ‘girls who date girls are usually more adventurous, let’s put that to the test’. Disappointing but not surprising.
This was just Hinge, however. And I must say, through it all, Bumble BFF was a safe space. It was a steady flow of likes and matches, with polite introductions that made me feel like the new girl at school. Feeld matches were few and far between. Raya still had me on its waiting list.
Building the foundations
Thus began months of chipping away at superficial conversations. It’s important to note here that I matched with people only if they responded to one of my prompts, not just likes on my pictures. And I only responded to answers that I thought would start conversations. We weren’t going off looks here.
Soon, front-runners began to emerge. On Hinge, I met Luna, whose chaotic stories of losing her phone reminded me of one of my old friends. There was Jack, a videographer, who joked about his mates having to edit hours of footage after the Queen passed away, another Jack who owned a rat-catching business (I didn’t tell him I was a vegan) and Ryan, who worked in the charity sector and grew up on a farm in Devon. There was also an Australian software developer called Shaun, who was persistent about meeting in person from the get-go but seemed nice enough.
Feeld was an interesting one. Set up by Bulgarian-born designer Dimo Trifonov after his girlfriend told him that she had feelings for other women, it encourages users to embrace fluidity in relationships. Its website says ‘We’ve designed Feeld not only to help you connect with likeminded people, but to connect to your own interests and intentions more freely than you can anywhere else.’ Profiles include polyamorous couples, people seeking specific kinks, and others simply looking for one-night stands. I got the sense that its users would espouse progressive qualities, yet most would immediately lose interest when I made it clear I wasn’t looking for sex. I’m not quite sure what that says. Nevertheless, one person stuck around. His name was Joe, he had a jack russell-patterdale mix and lived on a canal boat in east London.
Then there was Bumble BFF. Sweet, sweet Bumble BFF. Among the chaos, this charming little app helped me meet Maria. Also an Angel Olsen fan, also a reader of music mags and also working a creative job: winning on all fronts. She was the most likely contender for true friendship.
Raya still hadn’t let me in.
Fatigue sets in
Nobody warned me that there would be so much goddamn admin. Soon, I had a notebook filled with pages and pages of names, cross-referenced with dates we matched, what stages of conversation we were at and quick facts for me to remember later on. Lines were dashed across conversations that fizzled out or ones where I had been ghosted. Those who were unaware that I was doing this as a Time Out journalist had ‘must tell them’ underlined in capitalised squiggles. I was constantly concerned that I would repeat my questions or forget what I had told people about myself or my true intentions of being on the app. I hated reducing fully rounded people to quick labels like, ‘videographer – sends long messages about art’, ‘product designer – also went to Primavera’, ‘fintech guy – has never read a book’.
This, paired with the amount of ghosting I went through, made it increasingly difficult to stay motivated. Why was I seeking approval and friendship from these uninterested strangers in the first place? What did that say about me? Bumble was the worst for it, which Ryan corroborated. ‘I did use Bumble BFF a little [after a break-up] but found most of the conversations died quickly, and I only met up with a couple of people so gave up with it.’ I didn’t think being pied off by someone I didn’t know would feel so personal. I guess once sex was removed from it then it was just the raw, unfiltered me that they were rejecting. Ouch.
There was also the thorny question of telling people about the article. I did this early into the conversations as I’ve seen ‘How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days’ and it didn’t end well for Kate Hudson’s character when she revealed her agenda to a broken-hearted Matthew McConaughey. My admission was usually met with apprehension and eventual acceptance. However, Maria, who I had become close with on Bumble, was not happy at all and left me on ice for a few weeks – something she would bring up when we met for the first time.
Okay, time to date
Lots of my conversations with people didn’t get to this point, because I’d already been ghosted. However, I did get a few good friend dates out of it.
Making that step away from screens and to real-life encounters was a daunting prospect, more so than ‘normal’ dating, because it wasn’t like you could put any indifference down to lack of sexual chemistry. If you can’t hide behind the guise of your flirtatious alter-ego and they don’t like you, it is personal.
I met Shaun (Hinge) in a food hall on Tottenham Court Road. In my eyes, the bustle of a post-work crowd, the bar seating and bright lighting made it relatively un-romantic. He’d moved to London three and a half years ago, just before lockdown. These apps (Tinder, Hinge, Bumble) had been his gateway to friendships when restrictions were lifted and he found himself alone in a new city. ‘I have no expectations from the profiles,’ he said. ‘I’m just seeing what happens. Sometimes I meet people and stay in contact with them as friends, and sometimes I form another kind of relationship with them.’ He later explained that this is because he’s ethically non-monogamous, a common label I’d seen on profiles. More on that later.
A couple of weeks later, Ryan (also Hinge) and I wandered around Whitechapel Gallery, spending a couple of hours inspecting clothing, photographs and a couple of short films. He’d previously encouraged me to keep using the apps. ‘There’ll be a few dead ends, but I’m sure it’ll work out,’ he said. Our friend date started a little uncomfortably, however. He was more withdrawn than I had expected. Had we reached that sticking point he’d referred to? After watching a short film of people walking backwards, ‘Exorcist’-style, the ice was broken and it became easier to talk. The power of performance art.
Maria (Bumble BFF), on the other hand, was immediately easy to get along with. We hung out in a café that had previously been a Victorian urinal then walked around Central London for a bit. The conversation had a natural flow and mostly involved music. Her move to London and a new job also coincided with the pandemic, so she went on Bumble BFF to meet people. She had a lot of questions for me, which helped. And by the time we’d met, I had a bank of dependable questions from previous friend dates (so, when did you move to London? Where do you like to go out? Have you too once wet yourself in public?) to count on.
There was a tense moment however when she brought up this article. ‘When you first told me, I was like “She’s just using me”,’ she said. ‘But I talked to a friend about it and she said you’d done nothing wrong and seemed like a nice person.’ I assured her that I wouldn’t write about our meeting up if she didn’t want me to. This diffused any potential fallout and I walked away feeling like we’d had an organic chemistry, unlike any of the other friend dates I had been on.
We met up a second time in the new year, to watch a film and have a drink at a nearby pub afterwards. Like most second dates, there was a new level to the conversation, moving away from small talk to a shared love of ‘Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging’. A monumental bond to have as a zillennial. It felt like we’d hit a good rhythm. A third meet-up, at The Last Tuesday Society (her suggestion), is now on the cards.
I was still on the waitlist for Raya.
I’m good enough, aren’t I?
At this point, the whole Raya thing started to get to me. I’d been on multiple friend dates and not heard a peep out of them. What part of my being wasn’t good enough for this app full of high-flyers and world-bestriding alpha humans? I could compete with the best of them: I’m the fucking deputy commercial editor of Time Out.
I decided I needed to up my game, channel my inner influencer and make them believe I was attractive and successful enough to be on their silly little app. I wasn’t just some bottom-feeding wannabe writer living in a damp flat in Leyton. I strode around Covent Garden, followed by Time Out’s very patient staff photographer, asserting myself as someone with a blue tick and the attitude to match (you'll see the results scattered throughout this feature). Look, I’m a hotshot. I can buy – even pour – rounds of beer for my friends at the pub. I can stare wistfully into the abyss as if I’m contemplating my next Guardian column, and I can make full use of golden-hour lighting as it washes over Seven Dials Market. Surely this would turn the heads of everyone at Raya.
Dissecting it all
Meanwhile, I’d started to ask my friend dates what they thought of me. Because I want to know how I come across too. It was mostly positive reviews. Maria said, ‘I’m just relieved you’re not some creepy old guy on the internet, lying about who you are.’ I’m glad about that too, Maria.
Ryan said, ‘Good signs for me were: you listed your pronouns, liberal politics, and had a picture with two friends on either side of you.’ Adding, ‘Our meet-up was fun, I thought you were easygoing and funny, and we didn’t have any difficulties finding things to talk about which was great.’ He and I are making plans to hang out again, so I think that initial awkwardness was all on me.
Shaun’s response was a little different, though. ‘I was intrigued by your being so upfront about meeting friends and I just found that dynamic really interesting,’ he said. ‘Something I find fun and interesting in my friendships is, I don’t know if I’d call it sexual tension, but an unsureness about where the other person stands. I guess I was exploring if it’s possible to have that less-defined structure by meeting people on an app. I like the idea of relationships being very undefined and there being room for growth in any different direction.’
He also said I looked like his ex, but that’s a whole other thing.
I spent a while trying to work out if I agreed with this or not. Eventually, I realised it didn’t matter what he was getting at. Or how it related to his ethical non-monogamy. I was here to make friends and my friends don’t say stuff like that. I’m ashamed to say I subsequently ghosted him, too uncomfortable to address or question his motives behind the answers.
I kept reverting to things Charlie said at the start. He told me, ‘Every time I’ve made a friendship, I haven’t been looking for friendship. It’s important to be open to it and pursue it when the opportunities arise and the vibes are there. But ultimately dating apps are dating apps, and the majority of people are on them to date.’ With this logic, I shouldn’t have been surprised when seeming friendship frontrunners didn’t quite make it to the meet-up stage. Why would they bother if there’s no chance of it going anywhere?
This whole thing was a lot. From November to now I’ve felt snubbed by strangers, elated at matches and confused about what makes me unlikeable. Rejection feels like an attack on your character when sex is removed from the equation.
In the end, I made one definite friend (as well as one other strong friend-contender). To get to that one friend it took three months, more than 50 lengthy, separate text chats and four apps.
It would be nice to say, 100 percent, that going on dating apps to make friends does work (and to prove Charlie wrong). But I think it’s the luck of who you match with and how much time and effort you’re willing to put into it. We’ve got to give up this idea that we can put someone in the bin if we aren’t immediately vibing. Giving people the space to fully open up allows you to make a much better assessment. London is a huge city, filled with people from all walks of life, so chances are you’ll find your tribe if you look hard enough. Just don’t count on algorithms to do all the legwork for you.
Thankfully, through the potentially hundreds of people I’ve been swiped away from, there have been a few glimpses of genuine human connection. I have hope for burgeoning futures with Ryan and Maria. And hey, maybe I’ll try to resuscitate some of the chats that died out. I’m just glad that I’m not a total fucking loser, after all.
Raya still hasn’t let me in.
The names of people featured in this article have been changed.