I’m no stranger to internet friendships. I made some of my first friends in a Yahoo chat room when I was not yet a teenager — people in Connecticut, North Carolina, Washington state, the United Kingdom and Alberta, Canada.
Still, it’s been years since I tried to make friends from the internet. As a married person, I watched my single friends with curiosity as they swiped different profiles, left or right, to indicate who they might be interested in romantically. “What are you looking for?” I sometimes asked. They couldn’t exactly say.
In March, I moved from Arizona, where I’d lived for 10 years, to Washington state, I thought the internet might be able to help me find friends again. This time? The Tinder-like app, Bumble.
Bumble has three settings, one for networking, one for dating and the version I used for friends, Bumble BFF. This version introduces you exclusively to other women who are seeking friendships just like you.
The basic layout of Bumble BFF is this: Every person can upload six photos and 300 characters for their bio. Your first name, general location, job and age are listed, and you can also add a link to your Instagram, where people can see more.
My first impression was that women are extraordinarily talented at condensing their interests and making themselves sound like enormously fun people. BFF profiles had an expert level of emoji usage and exclamation point prowess and even included several jokes. “I don’t blame you if you only want me for my dog,” more than one of them wrote. Several people mentioned their Myers-Briggs personality type.
Not to mention the selfies, which often felt like the real battleground. An avid hiker, I uploaded a few photos of myself doing outdoorsy stuff, but quickly realized my strategy was off. You had to diversify: A photo of an outdoor activity, a photo with other people (to prove you’re social), a photo with a dog (to prove you have a soul), a photo of you looking casual in a foreign place (to prove you love an adventure.)
I changed my main picture to me eating ice cream. That communicates fun, down-to-earth, happy to try new restaurants, right?
I swiped through dozens of people, saying yes as often as I said no. It felt strange to skip people based on nothing but how they looked and a handful of words. I tried to understand what I was saying no to — no to people whose main photo was taken at the club or mention wanting to go out at night (I don’t drink and am in bed by 9), no to women without a bio (because what would I be saying yes to?), no if they said they wanted “drama-free” friendships (which seemed like a red flag), no if the things they wanted to do when hanging out were outside my personal interest zone (gaming, photography, working out, puppy playdates at which my dog would be a nightmare.)
I set my range of ages I was interested as anything 21 and up, but often found myself skewing most specifically toward people within two years of my own age (26). For younger people, I thought, “Ah, what will we have in common?” For older people, I thought, “I don’t know. Is it weird to see if we want to hang out?”
The result was that every person I swiped on started to run together. Profiles became a mash up of, “Let’s do yoga, go hiking, meet up for coffee.” and “I am down-to-earth, love brunch, love travel.”
I messaged everyone I matched with, but wasn’t sure what to mention. I… also love brunch? One girl messaged me to tell me the ice cream I was eating in my profile picture looked delicious, and we spent a series of messages talking about the different must-try dessert restaurants in the city.
Bumble’s monetizing quirks don’t help, either. In order to have a conversation with someone, you have to swipe right and so do they. Then, you have 24 hours to mutually message each other or the conversation expires and you can’t contact them again. The day after I signed up, I was busy all day and missed a message. Your only option is to purchase “coins” that give you ability to see who’s already swiped right on you, “rematch” if a conversation expires and give yourself an extra 24 hours to initiate contact — for the not-exactly-cheap price of $25 a month (there are other tiers, too, equally spendy.)
But mostly what perplexed me was this: How do I know, really, who would make a good friend? One of my best friends is an actor-slash-whatever-pays-the-bills in Chicago who I met in high school and now calls me when she’s walking to the train. We talk about our families and society and weighing our creative pursuits over our financial needs, and though we both might take the occasional yoga class or go kayaking, we’ve never done those things together.
In Phoenix, I met two women hiking who were close to a decade older than me. They invited me into their book club and became two of my most reliable local friendships, often inviting me on outings when I hadn’t reached out in weeks. How would I have swiped on them, an event planner and a county clerk?
Ultimately, in one week with near-daily swiping and outreach, I matched with 11 possible friends. I initiated conversations with all but one of them (she messaged me first), and eight started a conversation within the time limit. There were a lot of tentative future-plans, two scheduled events, one cancellation and one actual meetup — a 28-year old who had lived in three other countries and mentioned feminism, social justice and hiking in her profile.
We met at a local beach park and sat down on a piece of driftwood to chat, her suggestion. We talked about what we did for work, what had brought us to Seattle, about the struggles of creating friendship. After a while, we walked to the other end of the park, hypothesized the origins of three large objects that had washed up on the shore and lightly dipped our toes into politics. After two hours, as the sun started setting, and we agreed it was time to go.
“So would you like to meet up again, maybe go hiking?” she asked.
I was amused by how much it sounded like the close of a date, but of course I said yes.