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The quest to cure loneliness

TechCrunch TechCrunch 10/06/2016 Josh Constine

Foursquare, Google Latitude, and Facebook Nearby failed to change the way we all meet up. That’s because intent, not location, is the most important thing when connecting people offline. If we want to meet up for food, coffee, drinks, the gym, a party, or just to chill, it’s tough to know who else does too. It doesn’t matter if a friend is a block away if they can’t or don’t want to hang out. Always-on location sharing still freaks some of us out, and can drain battery life.

But the typical approach of calling, texting, or posting on social media to see who’s available is broken too. You look desperate constantly badgering friends or broadcasting too widely asking to get together. The silence is deafening when no one responds. You feel uncool. Spraying push notifications at too large an audience or painstakingly choosing who to ping is discouraging.

And like chat apps, products dedicated to aiding us assemble friends offline only really work if they achieve a level of ubiquity. If a few of your best buddies aren’t there, it’s pretty useless and you might as well resort to direct messaging.

That’s what kept Free from gaining traction, and fast-growing Down To Lunch has been criticized for unwanted invites. Since people are often only open to get together with friends a few times a week, it’s hard to achieve consistent use of a standalone app that drives growth instead of churn. Plus, if we’re not already looking there for another reason, people undecided about whether they’re trying to congregate can’t be seduced.

The ideal product for helping us gather offline will likely have three attributes:

  1. Intention – Let’s people share that they’re available and interested in hanging out or doing something specific, not (just) where they are
  2. Practicality – Let’s people easily reach the right audience with their availability to hang out without seeming pushy or hopelessly unpopular
  3. Ubiquity – It’s already used by the people you enjoy hanging out with, or it at least has enough network effect to recruit holdouts, and friends regularly check it even if they weren’t planning on rallying

This is why Facebook Messenger and Snapchat are better primed to succeed at ‘gathering’ than anyone else.

It’s an extraordinarily tough product to design right. But they have the reach (at least amongst the most social age group), style of product, and the sociology savvy to nail it. The question is if either can.

The only time I ever tried to build a company, it was to build this. The app was called Signal. We failed and shut down. There was too much friction to showing intent with wordy plans, it was impractical to constantly be annoying friends with pleas to see them, and we couldn’t get people’s whole offline social graph to sign up.

I’m not the only one who gave it a shot. There was Y Combinator president Sam Altman’s original startup Loopt. Facebook acquired both Gowalla and Glancee, two more attempts. Oh, and then there’s Banjo, Sonar, FacesIn, and a dozen more that imploded.

I’d bet Facebook and Snapchat could do better

Imagine if instead of just an online availability indicator, we had an “I want to meet up” offline availability indicator.

Tap a button, and your friends in your city or a subset of them could see you’re interested in socializing in the physical world. It’d last a few hours or until you turned it off, and could optionally include what you’re in the mood for. Your closest friends might get notified, but you wouldn’t necessarily have to alert them.

Facebook Messenger has a whole People tab that’s hardly put to use. It shows your “favorite” friends to chat with, but they’re probably already near the top of your home tab list of chat threads. Yet its role as the top Western messaging app means people are opening it dozens of times per day.

Messenger’s People tab could display your intent to hang out and you’d be one tap away from starting a chat thread to plan your rendezvous. And since it would just need general location and your explicit approval to function, not always-on exact location that is implicitly broadcast, it wouldn’t need the scary privacy opt out that cut down usage of Facebook Nearby Friends.

It’d be a little tougher to shoehorn the feature into Snapchat. There could be room on the Chat or Stories pages. Snapchat’s intense usage amongst teens and college kids with tons of free time to spend with friends could give an offline intent indictor enough visibility.

Both social networks want you to share more of your personal lives on their apps. Creating content that’s compelling and doesn’t seem awkward is a lot easier when you’re with friends. They’re your co-stars, your muses, and your guides to experience. Becoming the app that fuels these offline meetups might make them the place to share the results.

Social Creatures

I believe this space is eventually destined for a winner, whether it’s Facebook, Snapchat, or some startup like Down To Lunch. We get too much joy out of being with friends for the problem of separation to go unsolved. And online networking has gotten so effective that we crave true human connection. Maybe one day virtual reality will simulate in-person interaction. Still, there’s no substitute for friendly touch.

College is seen as the pinnacle of social life because the condensed geography, flexible schedules, similar demographics, and outgoing energy allow people to overcome the barriers to assembly. When all you have to do is walk down the hall of open doorways with a six-pack of beer, hanging out is simple.

But even being just a building away reduces the transparency and gathering gets harder. As we age, the distances grow to blocks or miles, and schedules fill up. We spend more time alone or just with our significant other. We miss out on laughter, inspiration, culture, and collaboration. We sit in our houses or apartments wish we were together, while our friends sit in theirs wishing the same.

We’re social creatures. It’s time our apps brought back what that really means.

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