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Millennial friendship apps have a phony feminist problem

Swiping for friendships is a bad idea from the start.


Published Apr 8, 2019   Updated May 20, 2021, 3:26 pm CDT

When twenty-something Cati Glasser downloaded BumbleBFF, she’d just ended a relationship with a long-term partner and was hoping to make new friends in Los Angeles. “I made a resolution to put myself out there. I have some bad anxiety and thought it was a good way to connect with other women,” Glasser said. “It was interesting to see how many women want to connect with each other, and how so many of us feel so lonely or want to join a community of support.”

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However, after downloading Bumble BFF, there was something about the design of the app—of all “connection” apps, really—that when paired with our general cultural anxieties proved disheartening. “Some women didn’t even have any information, just their profile pictures,” Glasser said. “I realized while swiping left or right how much of it could have to do with how good looking you are, and wondered if I was in that ‘in’ crowd, or not measuring up to other women.”

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These criticisms are not uncommon among users of friendship apps like Bumble BFF, Friender, Hey!Vina, and GirlCrew. They all allow users to swipe through each other’s photos and send messages to their matches, borrowing from nearly any modern dating app format. Bumble, the most popular of these apps, created “BFF mode” in 2016 as an option within the app that replaces potential dates with other women using BFF mode to match with platonic friends. Like the original Bumble, matched users have 24 hours to initiate a conversation before the match expires and also uses a matching algorithm. According to a Bumble spokesperson, BFF mode was launched in response to user requests for a friend-finding feature and feedback that showed women were already using the app for this same purpose.

In other words, these apps wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t already an audience. While downloading a friendship app—and therefore publicly admitting to being a sad, friendless adult—can feel embarrassing, feeling like a sad, friendless adult isn’t uncommon among millennial and Gen Z women. A 2018 study by the U.K. Office for National Statistics found that young people ages 16-24 feel lonely more often than adults of other age groups. Then there are the older millennials who are entering phases of their lives where making friends is proving more challenging.

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“In college and grad school, you have a built-in social circle of people who are going through common stressors and experiences,” Carrie Bearden, a UCLA professor of psychology, told the Daily Dot. “People generally have their social circles narrow as they get older, particularly as people start to have long-term romantic relationships, marriage, and kids, and so a lot of the people that may have been your social circle before start to fall away.” As Bearden explained, young adults also move more frequently for work, often to a new city where they don’t know anyone. “Trying to connect with new people in a new place can be isolating,” she said.

Apps like BumbleBFF and HeyVina tap into this need for connection. For those who struggle with face-to-face interaction or are time-strapped, they might be helpful tools that level the friendship-making playing field. Dating connections and connections in general are being done online, so I think there could be some value to this, especially for people who are a little bit more socially anxious,” Ariela Vasserman, a clinical instructor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Hospital, told the Daily Dot.

But because friendship apps make you put yourself out there in the same way you do dating apps, these apps themselves can become lonely places and possibly intensify feelings of isolation. “There is always the possibility that someone could be contacting you, so if that isn’t happening, you may feel even more alone,” Bearden said.

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Ghosting and general flakiness are common on dating apps like Tinder, but being ghosted by someone because they’re not interested in being friends can be uniquely hurtful and discouraging. You could argue it’s even more painful to be denied for your looks or your personality when you’re just seeking friendship. With these apps, Vasserman said, “there’s the greater possibility for rejection, and not being able to process the rejection because it can happen so quickly and, obviously, without any explanation.”

Michelle Matthews, a 33-year-old product designer in Los Angeles, said she felt just as discouraged and disappointed on Bumble BFF as she did on dating apps. The profiles looked just like the dating profiles and were so focused on photos, not so much on what they do and what they’re into,” Matthews said.I was intimidated to reach out to hot women, and I found that really attractive women who I had things in common with still wouldn’t respond to me. I’m a fat woman, so I don’t know if that’s a factor, but it seems wild that it would be for making friends.”

What makes the shallowness even more frustrating is the aggressively upbeat, “girl power” messaging that exists across these platforms, creating an unsettling form of cognitive dissonance with the actual experience of using the apps. For instance, Hey!Vina, a startup launched in 2016 as “Tinder for (girl) friends,” runs a corresponding blog that includes headlines like “5 ways surrounding yourself with badass women empowers you,” “Power of the pack,” and “Dealing with loneliness: the loneliness chronicles.” Friender offers a similar format that connects users based on recreational activities like yoga, hiking, and crossfit which might make it difficult for less adventurous types to find friends, though it does demonstrate that it is possible to create an app for women without a blatantly gendered name. GirlCrew, however, takes a more literal approach.  

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When Glasser was on Bumble BFF, she said, “there were a handful of women looking for their Carrie Bradshaw pussy team, or the Monica to their Rachel, or insert any other women duos from popular culture.”

Bumble, which markets itself as a feminist app, has even branched out into a speed networking platform to help women advance in their careers—a “lean-in” approach that positions connections between women as a way to harness more power, but doesn’t offer resources or solutions to systemic issues like wage inequality or workplace discrimination. It’s a lot to ask from an app, but slapping on the feminist label feels empty and reduces friendship and community-building between women to internalized sexist stereotypes about girl bosses who power brunch.

Tianna Donyes, 26, was working long hours as a hairdresser when she downloaded Bumble BFF, hoping to expand her social circle. “I’d met a couple cool guys on Bumble and Tinder that I stayed friends with, so I figured I would give Bumble BFF a try.” Donyes met up with a few Bumble BFF matches, but nothing stuck. “In L.A., you can meet all sorts of people to grab a drink and go on a hike with, but I am hungry for friendships where you can do nothing together, hang out and read books, have a movie night, talk about personal things and not just recap The Bachelor,” she said. It seemed like if I wasn’t an Instagram model, I had no place on the app. I just saw the same ‘brunch and pizza’ cool girls who want to go on hikes and take Instagram photos.”

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Often, these apps paint friendships with women with a broad, reductive brush, and present a narrow view of women as a monolith. “The written prompts to describe yourself are pretty limited, like ‘Do you like to hike or do yoga?’ or ‘Netflix and chill, or party all night long?’” Glasser said. “It kind of cookie-molded how you present yourself, as either ‘woke’ and introverted or ‘basic bitch’ and ready to party.  I would like to think that we have more to offer than those few options.”

Kelly Campbell, a professor of psychology at California State University San Bernardino, agrees. “It assumes that all friendships and women are the same and seeking the same types of relationships.”

Some apps also seem to operate in a universe where queer women don’t exist. Despite the underlying queerness of borrowing an online dating format to match with each other based on their appearance and brief, often vague bio, many friendship apps for millennial women don’t seem to acknowledge that women who use the app might be looking for something more. On Bumble, especially, it can be difficult to sort out who’s straight, who’s interested, and who’s just looking for a woman to invite over for a threesome with her boyfriend. “It would be wiser to acknowledge that diversity if apps are aiming to foster meaningful connections,” Campbell added.

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With 19 million matches made per week, Bumble’s success stats show that downloading an app to find friends isn’t an entirely hopeless pursuit, though a company spokesperson advises that any social media platform is used best in moderation. “We realized through user feedback and extensive research that heavy use of social media does, in fact, have adverse mental health effects, especially on young women,” they said.

Bumble now offers a “Snooze” option that allows users to turn off and disconnect from the app with an away message. “As a social network that helps users make digital connections every day, we wanted to encourage our users to prioritize self-care and in-real-life communications through Snooze, and return to our platform when they are ready to engage with other users in a meaningful way.”

Community-building and bonds between women are powerful, though the true tragedy of the millennial friendship app is that, at a moment when we can’t seem to get enough of female friendship, this is the best we have.

For Glasser, trying out a friendship app was an interesting concept and mostly fun experiment, though it ultimately rang hollow. “It’s missing authenticity,” she said.

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*First Published: Apr 8, 2019, 6:30 am CDT