How does a cynical, middle-aged homebody make friends in the digital age? A lot of swiping — in hopes of clicking
I need friends.
I’ve always been an introvert and a homebody. I’ve never been particularly comfortable at clubs or large social gatherings. But that doesn’t mean I’m a hermit. I like having friends I can go to concerts or see movies with, or talk with for a couple of hours over lunch, or get together with to play games. (I had a Dungeons & Dragons group in college.)
But how do you make friends in the 21st century? Real friends. The kind of friends you can share weird, dark inside jokes with. That’s the kind of friendship I’ve always been drawn to. When I was in ninth grade, I came to school one day to find out that a fellow student had died in a car accident the night before, and nearly everyone at my relatively small private school was in mourning. Everyone, that is, except my friend Suneil and me. We didn’t know the poor kid in question and spent the entire day making dark, horribly insensitive private jokes at his expense. That sounds callous, but our dark humor was our bond. Suneil helped me during some tough adolescent moments and went with me to some of the first concerts I ever attended, but I still remember stifling uncontrollable laughter at morbid jokes as a moment that cemented our friendship. That kind of friend.
Or the kind of friend who’s a mentor you look up to. In my first job after college, I was a bit starstruck with my boss Jaime. She was just a few years older than me, but seemed so much more accomplished and confident. She’d already worked as an editor on multiple publications, and she was in charge of the entire arts and entertainment section of the alt-weekly where I was just a paid intern. I remember how excited I was when she invited me to her birthday party a few months after we started working together, and it felt like an entrance into a secret clique of successful, artistic intellectuals.
At some point between graduating from college and staring down middle age, though, everything changed. My friends got older. They got married, started families, pursued careers, and sometimes moved away. I didn’t exactly follow that path.
I’m 39, single, have no children, and I work at home. So, for me, friends are pretty much the only outlet I have for social interaction. Seeing old friends get married and raise families doesn’t necessarily make me feel like I’m missing out, but I do feel a bit sad or isolated when someone who’s been an important part of my life shifts their priorities and moves me lower down the list.
I’ve learned that you can’t always relive the past. A few years ago, I planned to spend a weekend at the Ozzfest Meets Knotfest hard rock festival with Suneil, who lives in Southern California. It was the kind of thing we used to do together all the time, and plan our lives around for months in advance. The festival was held at the same venue where we saw Metallica together back in 1994, one of the first concerts either of us ever went to. He hadn’t been to a concert in years, since before the birth of his twin daughters. I thought it would be a treat for him to get away for some nostalgic headbanging with an old friend.
When I arrived in town, he told me that he just couldn’t get the time away from his wife and kids, even for a few hours. I ended up at the concert alone, and I actually skipped the second day to head home early. It was a stark reminder that this just wasn’t part of his life anymore — that I wasn’t part of his life anymore, at least not to the same degree.
I realized that if I wanted to continue to have friends, I needed to be proactive about making new ones. But how, at age 39? It suddenly seemed so hard.
And yet it seems as important as ever. In recent years, a number of studies have delivered alarming statistics about loneliness among adults. In 2006, the American Sociological Review reported that the percentage of Americans who said they had no close friends more than doubled between 1985 and 2004. A 2011 Cornell University study found that the average number of close friends among adults had shrunk from three to two in the past 25 years. A 2018 study by insurance provider Cigna reported an average loneliness rate of 44 among adults, on a range from 20 to 80, based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale. Just the fact that a major university has developed an official “loneliness scale” is distressing enough.
But there’s no blueprint for making friends as an adult. Parents spend tons of time fretting about whether their children are making friends, but no one in adulthood is making sure that we’re properly socialized. So how do I go about making a genuine new friend?
I went on a friendquest.
Hello, my e-friend
I turned to two online outlets. With the proliferation of dating apps like Tinder and Bumble, it was probably inevitable that someone would develop an app for making friends, and that’s what Patook is. Launched in 2016, it’s similar to the swipe-right/swipe-left system of Tinder, allowing users to match with each other and then exchange messages.
I also tried Bumble BFF, the friend-making platform of dating app Bumble. Unlike Patook, Bumble BFF only matches people with members of the same sex, and in my initial experience, its male user base was extremely small (like, the same three people over and over and over). There are other friend-making apps with varying reputations, including Friender, but most are designed for specific activities or interest groups. (Like Peanut for moms, or Atleto for athletes; I’m definitely neither, though.)
Although I was skeptical, almost immediately after I started using Patook, I met Megan, a writer and college English professor who’d recently moved back to Las Vegas and also worked a non-traditional schedule. We bonded over our shared interest in writing and our shared disdain for children, as well as the hazards of attempting to make friends online.
Patook has a strict (and somewhat creepily paternalistic) “no flirting” policy, which includes monitoring messages for innuendo, but it’s not entirely reliable. Using a swear word (in a non-sexual context, really) got one of my messages blocked — only the app never notified me, which meant that Megan and I spent a few days each thinking the other had dropped our message thread. I had flashbacks to experiences of being ghosted on dating apps (or, to be honest, of ghosting other people).
When we finally met, we got along immediately, and our first coffeehouse meet-up was the template for many more hours-long lunches in the future. We shared thoughts on writing (Megan is opposed to stories without happy endings), living in Las Vegas (I’m still trying to convince her to prefer it over Reno, where she lived for many years), and enduring the children of friends and relatives.
The only really awkward part of our first meeting was me having to literally ask at the end, “So, are we going to be friends?”
I came home to a Patook message from Megan promising that at no time did she feel uncomfortable or offended during our hang-out, which itself seems like an uncomfortable message to receive, but it was actually reassuring. We’ve been friends for more than two years now, and we still exchange updates and pointers about our mutual ongoing efforts to make more friends online (and sarcastic digs about other people’s children).
Pleased to Meetup you
I also tried Meetup.com, an old-school web platform that predates MySpace and Friendster, even. But while those social networks have faded away, Meetup is still thriving, now owned by co-working conglomerate WeWork. I joined a bunch of local groups with generic names like “Las Vegas Social,” hoping to cast a wide net.
As someone who deals with social anxiety, I found the prospect of going to a gathering full of strangers far more daunting than the prospect of meeting just one specific person for coffee. My early Meetup experiences were not great.
At one group’s monthly get-together designed for new members, I walked in the door of Atomic Liquors on a packed Saturday night, made one loop around the bar, finding no indication of which cluster of people was the Meetup group, and walked right back out.
Another group held a game night at Chinatown tea house Milk Teaze, where the servers are all dressed in lingerie. I spent an uncomfortable hour drinking iced tea delivered by a barista in her skivvies, and playing Cards Against Humanity with an ungainly number of people, many of whom seemed to know each other already. I made half-hearted conversation with the guy sitting next to me, but when a pair of group members decided to break out a game they had designed themselves, I knew it was time to leave. I was looking to meet new people, not work as a beta tester.
At a Meetup for a movie lovers’ group, I bought a ticket to see a special screening of Vertigo at Regal Village Square. I sat through the movie, and never figured out whether any of the solo movie-goers or handfuls of people in the lobby afterward were part of the Meetup. After taking a break from Meetup, I eventually returned to find more positive experiences, including a meet-and-greet at Hearthstone that was actually friendly and welcoming, and a networking event sponsored by a local mortgage broker that was much more enjoyable than “networking event sponsored by a local mortgage broker” sounds.
Going back to Meetup also inspired me to give Bumble BFF another shot. I connected with another newly arrived writer, an early retiree who turned out to be more of an aspiring writer than a professional, and who spent much of our one coffee get-together complaining about his extended family. We did not become friends.
I’ve also got an eye on upcoming Meetups, and pretty much every time Megan and I get together, we update each other on our friend-making progress. I wouldn’t say that making friends has gotten easier, but it does feel like less of a chore when I know there are other people out there attempting the same thing, and there are viable ways for us to connect with each other. I suppose it’s comforting to know that it’s awkward, weird, and tricky for everyone.
And I realize that making friends is just the first step. Friendships require time and effort to cultivate. This is easy to forget. I make sure to stay in touch with people, even if they leave town or have their lives consumed with spouses and kids. Instead of vague plans to get together eventually, I try to always pick a specific time and place to meet. I don’t mind putting in the extra effort for something that I’ve realized is important to me.
It may feel a little ridiculous at first to say this to a stranger online, or to someone you’ve just met at a contrived social gathering, or even to a work colleague or vague acquaintance, but with all the technology we have available now, there’s really no other way to do it: Let’s be friends.