"Our first date was seven hours," 37-year-old Haifa tells me. "It was a beautiful spring day and we walked along the river, stopping at a pub for a drink in the sun and then on to a restaurant for pasta. We talked about dreams, dating and our shared love of burrata," she added. This might sound like the perfect start to a new romantic relationship but Haifa’s afternoon wasn’t with a potential partner – it was with a possible new friend.
Haifa is among the increasing number of women who are searching for new connections via friend-finding apps. While online dating has become ubiquitous (almost a third of relationships now begin online), using digital platforms to make new friends is also growing in popularity. This has accelerated thanks to the pandemic, which has made forging new friendships harder than ever. Friendship apps like Bumble BFF, Friender and Peanut work much like traditional dating apps like Tinder and Hinge. You swipe through different profiles of potential connections, start conversations through the app and meet up offline for dates. Finding new friends once you go beyond school and university can be difficult, especially when you move to a new place or your existing friends' lives go in different directions. The apps offer a potential solution.
They're not new – Peanut has been around since 2017, Bumble BFF since 2016 – but for a long time, many people felt there was something a bit 'weird' about asking someone on a friend date; just listen to this toe-curlingly awkward story on This American Life about two men trying to forge a friendship through platonic dates. But as with so much else, the past year appears to have worked wonders when it comes to resetting social norms.
Haifa met Janette on Bumble BFF, the friendship arm of the popular dating app. "I moved to a new area of London and wanted to meet local friends. This was increasingly important given the COVID-19 restriction rollercoaster. Janette was looking for the same," she explained. "It felt organic right after we had the conversation about being on Bumble BFF and why. We bonded over our shared feelings and goals," she added.
Pao, 28, had a similar experience when she moved to London five years ago. "I was new to the city and was struggling to meet people," she explained. Rather like romantic dating, she found that it can be a numbers game. "I went on loads of dates. We went for coffee, walks and ice cream. Some were a little awkward, some went really well. As time went on, I went on day trips and country walks with those who I’d clicked with," she explained. Two of these connections evolved into friendships that remain solid to this day. "It's been years now since I met my Bumble BFF friends and I often forget how we made our original connection," she added.
When looking for new friends, you’re often told to join a sports team or sign up for activities. These apps bridge the gap and allow you to meet people just for socialising. "I found it difficult making friends. I don't have that many hobbies and I have moved around quite often," 26-year-old Eniye from Bedfordshire told me. On Bumble BFF, Eniye started conversations with people whose interests were similar to her own. "I connected well with one woman because we both started a food Instagram page during lockdown. Our first date was a picnic," she said. This friendship evolved but it wasn’t all plain sailing. "I met one potential friend from the app that ghosted me. I thought we’d had a good time but I never heard from her again," Eniye explained. "I kept replaying the meeting in my head, trying to figure out what went wrong," she added.
For new mums, friend-finding apps can be invaluable. Maria, 28, from Glasgow, started using Peanut when she was three months pregnant. She didn't have any friends in a similar situation and the country was going into the first national lockdown. At first, she was a little cautious: "I have never used a dating app so I was unsure what it would be like and how it would work. Would I meet like-minded women? Was it safe? Who would be able to read my information and was it private?" Now with an 8-month-old baby, Maria has found the connections she's made vital during the pandemic. "As friends and family were travelling less, having friends five minutes away was a blessing. When everything was closed, we would meet outside for walks and coffees. Now some of the friendships have even progressed to play dates and swimming. I believe a few of them will be lifelong friendships."
Hannah, 37, from Manchester, had similar success with a mum meeting app called Mush. "I clicked with my friend Sam straightaway. She was so easy to talk to and I felt like a real friend as soon as we met," Hannah explained. The two women have supported each other through new motherhood and second pregnancies. "We stayed in touch via WhatsApp, and visited each other at home. Pre-COVID, we took the kids to soft play. When my second baby arrived she dropped off a box of homemade flapjacks and a baby hat she knitted herself. I feel really lucky to have her as a friend."
These apps can also help boost your career and foster new business connections. Restless Network, a social media app designed as a safe space for women, allows women to connect via various topics across message boards and private messaging. Amy, 34, an advertising director from London, joined with the hope of making friends and work connections for support and advice. "There was a post from someone seeking help trying to move careers. This is something I’d had experience with so I offered my advice. We got chatting on DM, then email and then went for coffee," Amy explained. "Over coffee, we chatted about all things work and life. I looked over her CV and she helped me with copywriting. It’s been hard to meet over the past year but we’ve stayed in touch and keep each other accountable," she added.
Amy had some good advice for other women tempted to give it a go: "You need to put the past online experiences to one side. Especially if you have ever dated online. When you meet like-minded women who are there to support each other you remember people are good and motivated by similar values to support and help each other."
"I would limit how many people you speak to so you are not overwhelmed with conversations and connect properly with people," Eniye recommended. "Choose a first meet that is casual and can be short or extended longer if it goes well. Maybe an afternoon walk or coffee," Haifa suggested. Most importantly, remember there are plenty of people out there who you’re likely to gel with. "Keep trying," said Pao. "You'll find someone you click with, promise."