Can a friendship app cure loneliness?

I did not plan to spend the most romantic night of the year having dinner with strangers. But then a friend sent me a link to Timeleft. 

The app, which algorithmically matches six people to go for a meal together, seemed a better option than staying in. So, on Valentine’s Day, I arrive at Americana, a restaurant just off London’s Piccadilly Circus with a southern US theme. The two-for-one house cocktail, very pink and very sweet, is conspicuously namedTill the End of Time”. A singer in a nylon flamenco dress performs covers of love songs, urging the seated diners to join in. They do not. 

Timeleft was launched in London in January after starting in continental Europe, taking its place among a new group of start-ups seeking to innovate a way out of loneliness. It defines itself against social networks and apps that limit communication to our phones, staking a claim to opening the door to something new and real — “the magic of chance encounters” with “people you wouldn’t have met”, the website says. Its aim? “To combat loneliness, depression issues, and broken families.”

To get the conversation going, our table of thirtysomethings has been issued with a list of icebreaking questions. But for now, at least, we do not opt to explore each other’s childhood memories or views on whether friendships between men and women are possible. What really interests us is why we are here. 

“Meeting new people,” says Elena, who moved from Melbourne a few years ago and works in the food industry, inventing new products. “London’s a lonely city.”

A man, his face only half visible, sits smiling at a table, and orange drink in front of him
A blonde woman, see only from the side, sips a cocktail

All five of my companions are likeable and thoughtful. Three grew up overseas, all have lived here for years. We are mostly single. From small talk about white-collar jobs in tech and HR, it is difficult to know what else we have in common. The thread that runs through everyone’s story, woven into different cloth, is the desire for connection.

Elena misses the talking-to-strangers familiarity of Melbourne. Clare’s friends have all had kids and are hanging out less. Elliot says his social group “just sort of fell away” after lockdown. He is a coder at a health start-up, and works almost completely from home. His team come to the office once a month, but it is not enough to gauge whether he likes his colleagues or not, so this is an opportunity to “expand his circle”. It is his second Timeleft dinner; after his first, he ended up at a karaoke bar. It was good to get out and have fun after being stuck staring at a screen all day, he says.

They are not alone in feeling lonely. Last year, US surgeon-general Vivek Murthy declared that an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” was harming social and individual health. Since 2015, he said, people from all social backgrounds and parts of the country have told him things like: “If I disappear tomorrow, no one will even notice.” In the US, survey data suggests that one in two adults have experienced loneliness. In the UK, a similar proportion reports feeling lonely at least occasionally, while a study by the Office for National Statistics found the number of adults reporting feeling lonely often or always rose from 2.6mn to 3.7mn between April 2020 and October 2021, and has remained around this level since. 

Things have become worse since the pandemic, especially for younger people, says Noreena Hertz, an economist and author of The Lonely Century. The figures, she says, “are stark”: in the US, one in five millennials say they have no friends at all; in the UK, more than one in 10 people across all ages said they had no close friends and more than a quarter said they had no best friends. Technology, she says, is part of the problem, making people “ill-skilled in forging connections in the real world” and moving everyday communal experiences — shopping, yoga, the cinema — into our homes. We are now less likely to be members of organisations from trade unions to churches, while government funding cuts have gutted public spaces such as libraries where we used to gather. 

Hertz is “excited” by platforms that make it easier for the lonely among us to do things with people. There is, she says, a “significant and substantive difference” between only interacting with others through technology and using technology as a means to connect with people. “Apps that can get people to meet in the real world are part of the solution,” she says. Expecting apps to cure the whole problem on their own would be asking too much, but “just that act of getting people to do things with people can be a game-changer”.

It is also an opportunity. Hertz says she has been approached by several entrepreneurs with ideas for businesses to ease the ache of loneliness. “I think it’s kind of a nascent sector,” she says. “There’s a huge market opportunity.” 

Timeleft has appeared at a moment of exhaustion with dating apps. Tired of constant scrolling, stilted meetings and the perpetually elusive promise of true love, users are disillusioned: a small US survey last year found that nearly 80 per cent of respondents experienced “emotional fatigue or burnout” when online dating. A slowdown in growth has led apps to introduce pricier subscription options, risking alienating customers. On Valentine’s Day, a class-action lawsuit filed against Match Group, which owns Tinder and Hinge, accused it of encouraging app addiction and prioritising profits over customers’ relationship goals.

A rash of in-person romance platforms has emerged in response, including Thursday — singles nights on the same day each week — and Pear, which provides users with a green silicone ring indicating the wearer’s romantic availability. Some, such as Bumble, are shifting focus to a broader “ecosystem of love”, including platforms for friendship and established relationships.

People, only their hands and arms visible, sit at a table with burgers in front of them
A close-up image of someone’s hands in an expressive gesture

Timeleft is not a dating app, but the boundaries between friendship and romance are blurred. Most at my table say they don’t expect to meet someone this way, although they might like to, and a group offers better odds than meeting one person. Andre, a Belgian who has lived in London for several years but is looking to “expand his network” after a divorce, estimates that singles account for “99 per cent” of people at the bar where different groups of Timeleft attendees are encouraged to gather for post-dinner drinks. When I ask one twentysomething there what she hoped for from the night, she carefully answers “new friends”, then adds, riotously, “and a husband!”.

All photographs taken for the FT by Harry Mitchell at Americana restaurant in London. They do not show the people mentioned in this article or any Timeleft event

At Arizona State University’s relationships and technology lab, professor Liesel Sharabi explains that dating apps are effective in broadening the pool of potential partners, increasing the chance of meeting someone. But they can also create a loop of disappointment. People, she says, are “sick of swiping, sick of having these conversations that don’t go anywhere”. They want to actually “meet new people instead of spending all their time on the apps”.

To fix this, Timeleft rejects online trappings. Users have no profiles, no say in who they meet, and the algorithm is focused on group dynamics rather than individual spark. What it retains is the tantalising promise of meeting new people. It strikes me that in making this a selling point, Timeleft replicates some of the problems that make people frustrated with other apps. It is sometimes not just swiping but offline interaction that leaves users cold.  

The problem here is the paradox of choice. In a classic study, people shopping for groceries were presented with two displays of jam, one with 24 varieties, the other with six. Although more were drawn to the stall with two dozen jams, those given fewer options were more likely to make a purchase, and be happy with it when they did. This, says Sharabi, shows the overwhelming effect created by apps that offer quantity but little improvement in meaning or quality, and that incentivise us to keep searching for “perfection . . . because it’s so easy to meet somebody new”. 

A man’s spectacles in his hand
The hands of several people hold glasses in a toast

Can the false bounty be replicated in platonic networks? “When we talk about loneliness, we’re talking about people feeling dissatisfied, not just with the quantity of relationships they have, but also the quality in those connections,” Sharabi says. Sometimes we feel most isolated when surrounded by people.

When I think of dating app fatigue, I am not just thinking of swiping but of meeting new people, of authentic yet orchestrated real-life encounters, of being auditioned and auditioning. I have met many wonderful people on the apps, and know others who have found life partners. But the potentially infinite procession of strangers, offered out of context by a machine, makes me feel tired. It makes me feel lonely.  

What are we talking about when we talk about loneliness? In his report, Murthy makes a revealing distinction. Social isolation is “objectively having few social relationships, social roles, group memberships” or interactions. Loneliness “is a subjective internal state”, the “distressing experience” of “perceived isolation” and unmet needs, a mismatch between someone’s “preferred and actual experience”. 

Most isolation is among older adults, but young people are nearly twice as likely to report feeling lonely. Among young US adults, Murthy reports, the rate of loneliness increased every year between 1976 and 2019.

Andrea Wigfield, director of the Centre for Loneliness Studies at Sheffield Hallam University, cautions against conclusions that we are lonelier than ever. A lack of historic data, she says, makes it difficult to show an increase, and because people self-report loneliness it is tricky to differentiate between objective isolation and dissatisfaction. Perceived failings can be accentuated by social media images of other people with, seemingly, more and better friends. 

One point about loneliness, however, is clear. “The core thing is having meaningful relationships with other people,” Wigfield says. To ease the pain of loneliness, “anything that helps connect with other like-minded individuals with scope for a meaningful relationship” can help. Getting out and about to meet other people can meet that need, but it might not. “If you are surrounded by lots of people but don’t feel like you connect, that can make you feel more lonely.”

Another way of thinking about this involves the idea of quality connections. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist and author of Friends, is most famous for the number 150: the total of stable social relationships, loosely defined, that one can reasonably be expected to have. But he is more interested in a smaller figure. “Having around five good friends, and that can include family — that core social world — dramatically affects your general health and wellbeing,” he says. These are “shoulder to cry on” people, who live “around the corner. You need to be able to walk to their house and bang on their door.” Crucially, it is possible to have too many, Dunbar says. “If you have more [than five] you are spreading your social capital too thinly to really feel the benefit.” 

In recent years, Dunbar’s number has been disputed: our modern urban habitats and social networks, some scientists argue, mean that we can now maintain more connections than past generations were able to. Personally, I think it’s possible to maintain as many close relationships as you want, as long as you put in the effort. But Dunbar’s message of limits holds weight. Social networks, dating apps and meeting platforms now mean we can meet, and remain acquainted with, a seemingly infinite number of people. But all relationships require effort, and when that effort is spread too thinly, it does become harder to be secure that we are giving the people who need us what they need, or getting it ourselves. 

At my Timeleft dinner and the drinks afterwards, many people tell me they are focused on “widening their network”, meeting more, and new, people. Others want something deeper. Elena came, in part, simply “just to share a meal”. Food is an important part of her life, but she often finds herself eating alone, despite living with flatmates. Wigfield says the act of sharing food is crucial for social connection, but where it is served — among like-minded souls, in a spot where they feel cared for and welcome — is important. I wonder if eating with strangers in Piccadilly, a district known for novelty restaurants flogging expensive fast food to tourists, satisfied Elena’s wish to break bread with others. “It certainly fulfils that need to have company during a meal,” she replies.

When I met my five strangers at Americana, I was one of 3,000 around the world dining at that moment with Timeleft, 500 of whom were in London. It began in 2019 when Maxime Barbier, the company’s affable, sincere-seeming founder, set out to build a platform for “sharing dreams”. That evolved into a dating app, then pivoted to its current dinner-with-strangers concept.

People, their faces not visible, sitting at a restaurant table

The platform is growing quickly, opening in new cities every week following its initial launch in Lisbon in 2022, and Barbier has an entrepreneurial enthusiasm about evolving his product in response to customer needs. The latest development, he explains, recognises that people want more than one-time connections. When two subscribers get on at a dinner, they can connect through the app, and Timeleft will try to seat them at the same table for a future meal, too. “To create connection you need repetition,” Barbier says. “Talking to someone is not the problem. The problem is finding time and energy to connect. This kind of facilitator is really rare.”

It’s not a bad idea. Although my Valentine’s Day companions created a WhatsApp group to stay in touch, I think we would struggle to find a date to meet again, and a one-to-one might be too much. But I would be happy to sit next to any of them at another dinner. It would create familiarity, a step, perhaps, to real friendship. Still, I’m not quite sure I need an app for that. And if loneliness really is the problem, I have to ask myself why I would rather meet yet another group of strangers than get to know these ones a bit better. 

At several points during my Timeleft evening I was struck with a weariness that I recognised, I later realised, from dating apps. I liked the people I met very much, I enjoyed hearing about their thoughts and lives. But it is tiring to hang out with strangers. It is tiring to constantly be calibrating what can be said and not said, to see yourself reflected in the eyes of people you don’t know. 

I know this is the cost of making friends, and connecting with people. But as my new companions discussed their plans to book for the following week’s Timeleft, I wondered what desires these weekly introductions would satisfy. It is enjoyable to meet new people, but is it a fix for loneliness? How many strangers are enough? 

A spoon a bowl of dessert
The hand of a woman holds a spoon over plate where there are the remains of a chocolate dessert

Listening to my dinner companions, I am reminded of Lonely City, Olivia Laing’s 2016 account of being adrift and isolated in a new place. Laing is reserved about the potential of apps such as Timeleft. At the time she was writing the book, she was optimistic about technology’s potential for connection. She doesn’t feel that way now. “Loneliness is to do with the depth and richness of connection, not how many people one is surrounded by,” she says. “The cure isn’t connection or meeting someone; it’s intimacy. Intimacy requires real sharing of the self, including its less desirable aspects, and I think technology has so far struggled with that.”

At Americana, we finish our meal and pay item by item — we don’t know each other well enough to split the bill. “So, where do you want to be next Valentine’s Day?” Anton asks, cheekily. There is an intake of breath, a not quite uncomfortable silence. 

“Here with all of you again, of course,” Elliot says. We laugh. It was a good joke, everyone agrees. But no one offers a real answer. 

The names of guests at the Timeleft dinner have been changed

Bethan Staton is deputy editor of FT Work & Careers

Find out about our latest stories first — follow @FTWeekend on Instagram and X, and subscribe to our podcast Life & Art wherever you listen

Source by [author_name]


News7h: Update the world's latest breaking news online of the day, breaking news, politics, society today, international mainstream news .Updated news 24/7: Entertainment, the World everyday world. Hot news, images, video clips that are updated quickly and reliably

Related Articles

Back to top button
Immediate Peak