[Photo: Gerd Altmann on Pixabay]
By Nicole Shiu
With Covid-19 still disrupting our lives as we swing back and forth between the different Covid-19 Phases over the past year, it’s no wonder so many people are going stir-crazy from the lack of social interaction, desperate to find new friendships. However, making friends in real life is already quite tricky, even without all these safe-distancing restrictions. With little to no opportunity to meet new people the “organic” way, you might consider trying to find new friendships online.
However, the idea of befriending people online might be daunting. Where do you begin? Is it even worth the effort?
As someone who has a variety of experience, I’d like to offer my two cents, and assure you that while making friends online can be difficult, it is not impossible and can be rewarding.
Making Friends Anonymously
If you are a university student like me, you may have heard about the anonymous university chatbot on Telegram — made by a student for fellow students. This Telegram chatbot was created by Reddit user Aalden who introduced it on the social media site on June 1. It matches users to a random university batchmate, and you remain anonymous throughout your initial conversation. At the end, you can either exchange contacts and message each other directly, or end the conversation entirely without revealing yourself.
According to the creator, the chatbot was made for students who want to make new friends with people in the same university, and I genuinely applaud the creator for the hard work he put into running the bots.
While I have enquired about the chatbot’s exact number of users, its announcement channel — where it uploads information about new updates — suggests that it has attracted at least 7,000 users across the various universities. This speaks volumes of its popularity.
Clearly, the lack of social interaction was a dire problem for university students and many saw the chatbot as a possible solution.
How does it hold up though?
Surprisingly, the experience was not as bad as I had anticipated.
I was initially worried that the anonymity might mean that I will inevitably be matched with users who are only using the bot to be intentionally disruptive or offensive. However, perhaps it was exactly because of the anonymity that conversations flowed more easily than I had expected.
Without the pressure of having a bad first impression ruining their image, people were more genuine and some conversations went beyond mere small talk.
One that stood out to me was when I had a late-night discussion about whether we felt choosing a major we were interested in or a major with better career prospects was more important. I happened to have a similar conversation with my own brother, and it was insightful to hear a complete stranger’s opinion on the matter.
However, maybe the anonymity function works too well because, after the in-depth conversation we had, it felt more natural to end the conversation without exchanging contacts.
These heart-to-heart conversations were rather few and far between as finding a good conversation topic was difficult. With little in common aside from being enrolled in the same university, conversations tended to be very surface-level and almost forced.
To describe the typical conversation I have had with strangers through this bot, it starts with the usual talk about the ongoing pandemic. When that has been milked dry and we’re done lamenting about the social-distancing rules’ impact on our lives, usually the conversation dies off, and we’re off to find another match.
Aside from these repetitive conversations, others felt disingenuous as some users treated the bot like the dating application Tinder.
Once it becomes clear that you are not single or looking to date at the start of the conversation, some people would abruptly end the chat — something I experienced first-hand when one of my matches left the chat immediately when I lied about being attached.
Others tried to be more subtle about their intentions by first casually talking about exchanging selfies, but ghosted me once it became clear that I wasn’t going to send him a picture of myself.
Another problem was that there were many “outsiders” using the university chatbot. News of this interesting chatbot had spread far and wide thanks to the power of social media, and as a result, half the time, you would be matched with a Full-time National Servicemen instead of a fellow university student. This can prove frustrating if you are genuinely looking for a university friend to study with, or just to complain about studying with.
After trying this chatbot for about three weeks, I got tired of trying what felt like blindly bumping into strangers, hoping for a connection. While I did exchange contacts with some people, I still had not felt like I made a proper friend, which isn’t surprising considering that the number of conversations I’ve had with those I’ve exchanged contacts with is a grand total of zero.
For that reason, I decided to try something else that could allow me to see who I’m talking to from the start — Bumble.
Tinder but for Friends?
While Bumble is largely used as a dating app, it also has a “BFF” mode. So, imagine Tinder, except instead of swiping left and right for dates, you’re doing it to find a best friend forever (BFF).
I decided to give the friendship mode a go, to see if I would have any luck finding my forever friend. However, I would not recommend it for several reasons.
Majority of conversations I had on this platform were awkward, with many ending quickly and abruptly. Typically, we would chat for a while about the pandemic or engage in small talk about our days (which weren’t very exciting considering the limited activities we can do during a worldwide pandemic).
The most successful conversation I had on Bumble was essentially just a back-and-forth recommendation of shows to watch before the conversation ended awkwardly as we came to realise that our tastes were too different.
While there is a “conversation starter” feature on the app that gives you a selection of questions you can send your match, I have yet to see anyone use that function. I personally didn’t use these questions because they were outright silly or just strange. “Would you rather be able to fly or breathe underwater?” or “What were you trying to convey through the picture on your profile?”… If you would not ask a stranger this in real life, why ask it online?
While I can’t speak for others, I can say that I personally appreciate it when friendships don’t begin with questions seemingly plucked from a list that should be called “questions asked in job interviews”.
Furthermore, being on BFF mode on Bumble restricts the people you meet to be only those of the same gender. So unless you are specifically looking to befriend people of the same gender, this feature shrinks your pool of possible matches, which I don’t think was very big to begin with since Bumble is known as a dating application to most.
As a result, I ran out of possible matches within an hour, and I had about 10 successful matches. Even though none of those initial matches led to anything, I continued to stay on the app for about two more weeks. However, the three subsequent matches I had also ended awkwardly so I eventually uninstalled the application altogether.
Interest and Hobbies
Evidently, one of the biggest problems with making friends online is finding something to talk about. While making friends in real life usually means you have a context for interacting (like being from the same class or workplace), making online friends is difficult because you may have a myriad of reasons to be online.
The solution to that? Find someone you know has the same interest or hobby as you.
I’ve successfully made online friends by joining an online writing community on Discord. We talk about our common hobby and help one another out with it by sharing tips and resources. Conversations were a lot easier because before we even properly interacted, we already had a common topic of interest and “entry point”. While some effort is still needed to maintain the conversation, a lot of the stress of finding an interesting topic is taken off your shoulders.
One of my closest friends is someone I met on Tumblr over our shared passion for a video game (Ace Attorney, if you must know). This friendship was only made possible through the Internet since she lives halfway across the globe in Germany.
Over time, our conversations became more personal, and we began to talk about ourselves as well. Now, five years and many late-night conversations later, we’ve grown so comfortable with each other that we can talk about almost anything under the sun, be it the video game that connected us at the start or our real-life troubles.
There are many online platforms that centre around hobbies and interests and I believe those are good places to start with for finding friends who share your passions as it makes it easier to start and continue a conversation. The ones I’ve used before are Tumblr and Discord, but I’ve also heard of people who have made friends on Instagram and Twitter as well.
Ultimately, finding friends online is not as easy it seems. You should be careful about sharing too much personal information online, and it can also feel like a waste of time when your first few attempts flop.
However, it is not impossible. While it’s easiest to find friends based on common hobbies or interests, I do believe that persistence is key.
Through persistence and willingness to give it a try, you may meet someone you would have never otherwise crossed paths with, thanks to the wonders of the Internet.
After all, if I hadn’t given online friendship a chance all those years ago, I wouldn’t have the privilege of occasionally receiving calls from my German BFF, drunkenly crying over how much she cares about me.