We just clicked: why I set out to find a new group of friends online

Can a friendship app, a digital neighbourhood noticeboard or Facebook really help me discover a new bestie?

This year started with a bang. It burst into life with fireworks and kisses, and then came the sound of a spoon tapping on a wine glass. Since were all together, said my friend, I wanted to say its been an honour knowing you while Ive been in London.

Another leaving speech. I have heard many over the past few years, watching loved ones leave in search of job opportunities or housing security, or as a cure for homesickness. Later, as I lay in bed, I thought about my rate of friend attrition. How long until I found myself totally alone? Five years? Ten? My new year resolution was a no-brainer: I must try to make new friends.

A lot of young people feel the same. According to a survey last year for the BBC, 40% of 16- to 24-year-olds say they feel lonely often or very often. My problem with making friends isnt finding suitable candidates, but a lack of free time means I struggle to deepen relationships with people I like. But I do have my phone and I am part of an always-connected, always-scrolling generation. Can I use the internet to find my future bestie?

To help me on my journey, I contact Kate Leaver, author of The Friendship Cure, a book exploring modern friendship. She was inspired to write it by an article in the Atlantic, in which journalist Julie Beck argued that we shed friendships as we age because our spouses (to whom we are legally bound) and our family (to whom we are biologically bound) fill our worlds. When that happens, friendships are the first to go. That article essentially frightened me into a year-long research binge so I could make the case for reviving our interest and our investment in friendship, says Leaver.

She says we have organised our modern lives so that were more isolated than we think we are. Social media makes us believe we are surrounded by people, and we may mistake likes and comments for intimacy. Offline, meanwhile, we have been brought up to believe it is unacceptable to speak to strangers, even as traditional public spaces libraries, sports centres are being closed down. In the few spaces that remain, she says: Were left with all these grown adults not knowing how to make new friends or get close to people.

This rings painfully true. I go to the gym two or three times a week, yet my visits are silent. I dont enjoy the gym; I do it so I dont drop dead in 30 years. I pass through, barely making eye contact, let alone exchanging words. Can the internet help me make friends there?

I decide to follow my gym on Instagram, commenting on its posts alongside other members. Mostly, these are health fanatics and their comments are just fire emojis (a symbol that means exciting or excellent) so Im not sure how I could build intimacy. I try to get involved anyway, heaping praise and asking questions. Later, at the gym, I approach another user, a man who looks as if he is in his late 20s, and ask if he was the person I saw on Instagram winning a fitness challenge. He was. We swap names and talk about where we live. If we have lots in common, it is not immediately apparent. Perhaps it is our millennial inability to carry on a conversation, or perhaps we are both tired after exercise, but the chat dwindles. We dont speak when our paths cross again, but I do get a wave now and then.

I also download a friend-making app Bumble BFF. I am already using Bumble for dating and it is easy enough to toggle between the friends and romance platforms. I even use the same bio: lefty journalist from London, climbing the ladder of success wrong by wrong. I think it is charming, but other women do not. My rate of matches in the friend setting is significantly lower than in the romance section. I initiate a conversation with every match I receive, but notice that potential friendships are not tended with the same energy as possible romances. Perhaps Beck is right in the choice between love and friendship, pals always lose.

The swipe functionality of Bumble BFF also makes me uncomfortable. Like the romance portion, you swipe right to say you like the profile, left to say you dont. And you can make this decision based on one picture, rather than needing to take in the whole profile before you give your verdict. You cannot move on to another profile until you have cast your judgment, so you are primed to decide within seconds in order to sate your curiousity about who is next. Inevitably, I find myself judging other women based on their looks on what I think their clothes communicate about their personality, or what the set up of their shots says about their interests and no doubt I am being judged similarly. It hurts to be reduced to this, and more so than it does when it is by the opposite sex.

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In some ways, it is comforting to assume we lose touch with people because we grow apart. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Using an app for friendship rather than romance also drives home how chatting online with strangers is not a patch on talking face to face, when communication comes through many mediums tone, body language, expression all processed in an instant. Even a few words tell you so much. Perhaps we put up with it in our love lives because the prize of romance is put on such a high pedestal. Using the same tools to search for a friend reveals how truly blunt they are. I struggle to create any intimacy, or puncture the polite veneer of the chat box (How are you today? I am fine. How are you?).

It makes sense: I am ultimately a stranger, no matter how many laughs we share, or how much we agree on Brexit. We all keep our guard up for strangers. They could be anyone, and so could I. Each conversation is taking a punt. And we may be more likely to do it for love than friendship.

In the end, I manage to have proper conversations with a couple of women. They seem very nice, but live a bit too far away to meet. I lose momentum and feel frustrated with the app. I say my goodbyes and delete it.

According to the evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar, a human can comfortably manage no more than 150 relationships. As he put it, this is the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.

However, there is another number that Dunbar says is important to friendships: 30. One of the biggest barriers to meaningful friendships is distance, with 30 minutes being the longest time we would spend travelling to meet up. It doesnt matter whether its on foot, by bicycle or car, 30 minutes travel time is the tipping point. It is not our observation, but something that sociologists have commented on.

With this in mind, I prioritise making friends near home. I download a community app, Nextdoor, which is regularly listed as one of the best apps through which to make friends. It effectively acts as a digital noticeboard for your local area, including adverts for evening classes and book clubs, which both seem like prime buddy-making opportunities. But nobody is idly chatting on Nextdoor. It is not obvious how you can build online relationships when replying to posts about parking permits or moths giving people a rash. However, on another community website, the hyper-local Harringay Online, I notice a post from my neighbour to whom I have never spoken, despite living next to her for several years. When I see her in the local pub, I strike up a conversation about her post. Success! We get on. We have a drink and become Facebook friends.

It may seem daft to view nurturing an acquaintanceship with someone who lives next to you as an accomplishment. But it has forced me to challenge my own strict belief that people above anything else, even above my desire to chat have a right to be left alone. It simply feels rude to bother people; I need a suitable reason. Even using an app such as Bumble BFF, which is designed to introduce people, does not help. After all, just because someone uses the same app as me does not mean they want to speak to me.

However, research suggests we have a warped impression of other peoples reluctance to talk to us. The average person consistently underestimates how much a stranger has enjoyed speaking to them. This has been termed the liking gap, although, it is worth noting that it applies to real-life interactions, not digital ones.

Still, I wonder if my existing social media connections may be the most fruitful source of friends. They have already expressed an interest in me as an individual, and I should have some sense of them as people and be confident that we have something in common. Indeed, I met one of my closest friends on my favourite platform, Twitter.

I return to the chasm of hyperbole and scroll through the lists of people I follow and who follow me, looking out for those I regularly engage with. I send direct messages to a few. Every single person replies. Shared interests spring up easily and conversation comes naturally, as does an offer to catch up in person.

I also take to Facebook searching for something similar, but as I barely use the platform, it instead acts as a time capsule for a past version of me. I joined Facebook in 2006 and used it actively (pointless statuses, pokes, and all), but from 2011 my interaction with it slowed. Now I check in periodically, but barely engage. With a large proportion of Facebook friends being people I met more than 10 years ago, I am not sure I still have anything in common with many of them. But perhaps Facebooks supposed aim to keep us connected with people we might otherwise lose contact with will come in handy. Jeffrey Hall, a researcher from the University of Kansas, found that you need 80-100 hours to become friends with someone, or 200 hours to become close friends. But what if you have already racked up those hours? This is why one of the easiest ways to make friends is to reconnect with old ones. And there are plenty of old friends on Facebook.

I contact Paul, my BFF from sixth-form college. He went to a different university and, although we tried to stay in touch, our paths diverged over time. We chat briefly online, opting to meet for dinner right away. The dinner is like old times and there is no distance between us even though so much has changed. We discuss our respective new partners and what happened to the old ones, our new jobs and where we hope to go, as well as our old hobbies, which remain the same (writing and film-watching). The shared sense of humour and curiosity about the world makes for a joyful meal. We arrange to meet again, and remain in touch.

In some ways, it is comforting to assume we lose touch with people because we grow apart. The alternative is that our own idleness or inattention slowly separates us from those we once connected with. Perhaps friendships are more elusive than we think, and so delicate they will die unless actively nurtured. The internet is not a silver bullet for loneliness indeed, it may distort our natural behaviour and our understanding of what friendship is. But it can at least signpost where meaningful meetings may happen, and it can keep you in the loop of existing relationships.

Leaver tells me about the twentysomethings she interviewed for her book. One of them said she felt like the TV show Friends had lied to her because she grew up expecting to get this neat group of friends. I think loneliness in young people is partly explained by the gap between their expectations and the reality.

As for me, my search for new friends brings me back to old friends, to friendly faces I see each day and those I already know, but have not given enough attention to. I count up all the messages I regularly forget to reply to, and the old work colleagues I adored, but lost touch with. And I send an overdue text using three, magic words: Fancy a catchup?

Original Article : HERE ; The Ultimate Survival Food: The Lost Ways