October 16, 2023

I'll be there for you: the loneliness epidemic and the Friendship Algorithm

I'll be there for you: the loneliness epidemic and the Friendship Algorithm

 According to US surgeon general Vivek Murthy – the leading spokesperson on matters of public health in the USA –, loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes aday. While the figure has been criticized, loneliness is unquestionably increasing, to the point that it has its own ministry in some countries – the UK and Japan both appointed Ministers of Loneliness in 2021 to tackle what former Prime Minister Theresa May called “the sad reality of modern life”.

Many private companies have also seized the opportunity and built solutions, from the AI-generated friends developed by Replika to the “Gather sessions” aka “60-minutes guided group conversations” organized by Peoplehood, a social club/practice launched by SoulCycle founders Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice and described as “a workout for your relationships”.

You can “converse” with a virtual friend, you can improve the way you connect with people but one thing is clear: people need help to meet new people. And this is where revamped social dining experiences come in, i.e. services bridging the gap between offline and online and matching people who will probably have something in common. 

Dixner is one of them: described as a “social and culinary experience”, the event enables you to meet strangers who have been selected for you over dinner in a Parisian restaurant. All you have to do is fill in a form and answer questions like “What was your dream job as a child?”, “Where do you feel most comfortable?”, “What are your hobbies?”. Once the machine “knows” you, an algorithm maximizes your chances to meet the Dixner guests you are most likely to get along with.

Timeleft, which is available in Paris, Lisbon and Porto, is based on a similar concept – personality test, algorithm to find the “right” people for you and dinner with 5 other participants. With a promise, i.e. building “opportunities for the magic of chance encounters” and an additional step, i.e. rating your experience to improve compatibility in future dinners.

The name itself, Timeleft, which refers to the number of days, hours, minutes and seconds left to register for the next dinner, also says a lot about the urgency of meeting new people and making the most of the time you have left – a “first day of the rest of your life” philosophy where the brand enables you to have “the conversations you would have missed; the people you wouldn’t have met.” 

With one limit: “chance encounters” as Timeleft defines them, which rely on algorithms to optimize compatibility, leave little room for the magic of serendipity. Safe bets based on like-mindedness reinforcing our mental landscapes and social bubbles – similar to getting people recommendations like you do with books on Amazon, clothes on Zalando, or indeed “People You May Know” on Facebook.

Another interesting, different initiative is Black Elephant, which describes itself as “a next-generation social network forging genuine connection through the sharing of intimacy and vulnerability” and precisely addresses that need for alterity. With that notion and that of vulnerability at its core, Black Elephant invites people from different walks of life to meet and share their personal experiences during events called Parades, which can be held online or offline. 

The idea being to connect with people with different experiences and worldviews, who do not necessarily share your opinions but have gone through emotions that you have probably felt too. A little like what the Human Library project, launched over 20 years ago is all about: “Unjudge someone” by borrowing a “human book” and starting a conversation you would normally not have had access to.

Because this is also – and maybe mostly – what human connections are about: going beyond first impressions and leaving room for the unexpected, trusting life and chance to divert your course from a path determined by your personal statistics and the things you think define you. 

So why not try and fool the algorithm next time? Or just follow your gut and live by Bill Murray’s description: “Friendship is so weird. You just pick a human you’ve met and you’re like, ‘Yep, I like this one,’ and you just do stuff with them.”