Remember when our parents would warn us not to talk to strangers online? Well, nowadays, it seems that talking to strangers on the Internet has become so normalized that many people have “Internet friends,” who they’ve never actually met in real life. As members of Gen Z grow up, online friendships have become increasingly popular, and, now more than ever, people are rushing to online platforms to meet new people during this socially-stifling pandemic.
For many, these connections are made through the direct message (DM) function of dating apps. Since many people remain in some form of lockdown, they have been co-opting dating apps to create virtual networks of friends, and fill the void left by closed public spaces.
“I wish there was an easier way to meet people these days, but having virtual meet-ups over Zoom has been fun. I mean it wasn’t preferred, but it was an interesting and novel experience. We’d do things like share virtual drinks and just chat about life and the pandemic in general,” Sarah Wright, a junior psychology major said. She has been successful at using dating apps in lieu of going out to drink and chat in person, though she still prefers meeting people face-to-face.
For those who have had to move during the pandemic — whether it be back home or to start a new life elsewhere — dating apps have provided an easy way to be social while staying safe. Recent graduates, like Sara Peyton, a former UC Berkeley student who recently started a new job in Maui, have relied on apps like Tinder and Bumble to meet new friends.
“I knew almost no one and had a month on the island before my job started,” Peyton said. “Dating apps have been super helpful in regards to making friends. It’s especially difficult to meet new people right now because of the pandemic, so looking online was pretty much the only way I could do so.”
Peyton mentioned that she met a girl named Sheryl through Tinder, whom she was originally interested in romantically. Once she realized Sheryl was only looking for “rad new friends,” Peyton said she was on board to hang out platonically and ended up becoming close friends with Sheryl and her extended friend group. Now, they have socially-distanced board game nights every week and frequently go out for drinks together. For Peyton, a self-described “extrovert at heart,” this new group of friends was a welcomed addition to her life on the island.
Although using dating apps to find friends seems to have increased during the pandemic, it has been a trend for a while. After catching on that its users were doing this, Bumble created options for people exclusively looking to make friends.
“When Bumble Date became successful, we almost immediately saw a need to create a similar space to find friends,” a Bumble representative, who asked to not be named, said in an email. “In fact, there were people who were ‘hacking’ Bumble Date to find friends! Their profile bio would say something along the lines of: ‘Not here to date! Just looking for friends.’ We launched Bumble BFF in 2016, and our intention was to create a safe and empowering place for people to make friendships and platonic connections.”
For reference, Bumble BFF has the same profile layout as Bumble Date. Instead of those silly “get to know me questions” in peoples’ profiles being used to gauge the perfect partner, you can use a person’s response to “if you were any breakfast food, which would you be?” to determine if you’d rather be friends with someone who likes pancakes or bacon more.
People like Peyton have been using these apps as catalysts for socially-distanced in-person interactions, but not without caution.
“I felt awkward asking people about how COVID-conscious they are, but felt it was a necessary step if we were going to meet up in person,” Peyton said.
Dating apps have become aware of the increased use of their platforms during the pandemic. Bumble, for instance, noticed a nearly 70% increase in video calls on their app during the first couple of months of the pandemic. However, they are encouraging their users to meet people responsibly. Now, they give members of both Bumble Date and Bumble BFF the option to select their COVID preferences on the app to signify whether they’d like to keep it virtual or branch out to socially-distanced dates.
“We knew that Bumble could be one way people could stay connected and practice social distancing without meeting in the real world,” the Bumble representative said. “Meeting people during a pandemic is a very personal experience and we want to encourage all users to do what feels most safe for them.”
Dating apps aren’t the only online platforms being used to make friendships during this time. Social media is always a good option to find friends. Samanda Beeman, a third-year design student at USF, has been using Instagram to build her online friendship-fostering skills. She has built a network with people as interested in art and crafting as she is.
“I genuinely feel like the only reason I talk to people week-to-week is because of making friends online through Instagram DMs,” Beeman said. “And they’re people I don’t even really know. It’s like we just fostered a community.”
The general consensus seems to be that nothing beats in-person friendships, but that virtual ones will suffice until it is safe to mingle again.
“I definitely prefer meeting people in real life, but this is all I have for now,” Wright said. “And there are some benefits, like being secure with my physical safety.”
While approaching potential friends in public or striking up conversations in a bar isn’t possible for many; for some, online platforms and dating apps will have to do the trick for now.