clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Christina Animashaun/Vox

Filed under:

The big business of loneliness

Coworking spaces, friendship apps, and adult dorms are selling human connection.

The Highlight by Vox logo

“She ended up killing hundreds of people,” Emily says gravely. The soft-spoken 27-year-old blonde is telling her new housemate about Typhoid Mary. Emily moved into her Brooklyn apartment building two weeks ago and now finds herself watching the Oscars with people she hopes to call her friends, making small talk about mass death. Located in the basement of a three-story residence that houses 20 people, the TV room is crowded; disparate conversations come together and splinter off again. People are watching, but they’re also talking, sharing opinions and swapping movie trivia. The crowd is energetic, young, diverse.

This conversation — this warmth — is what Ben Smith is in the business of selling. Smith is the CEO and co-founder of Tribe, a co-living space with seven locations in Brooklyn whose motto is “We help you make friends.” Tribe offers furnished rooms at a premium: A bed in a shared room costs between $750 and $950, while prices for a single room range from $1,150 to $1,700. (Bathrooms and kitchens are shared.) According to Smith, however, “the product really is the people.”

The goal is to provide residents, many of whom are recent transplants to the city, with a premade social fabric. “New York can be an extremely isolating place, especially if you are here for a new job,” Smith says. It’s easy to fall into the trap of commuting to work and then going right back home if you don’t know anyone. “People have gone that route before living with us.”

This sad cyclical existence — room, office, room again — was Emily’s experience when she moved to San Francisco after college. Quiet but not shy, she worked with a very small team and didn’t connect with her Craigslist roommates. A year passed without her making a single close friend. “It was awful,” she says.

When she moved to New York earlier this winter, instead of turning to Craigslist, she looked up co-living places online. Tribe seemed the most community-oriented, so she applied, was accepted, and moved in. This time, she vowed, it would be different.

Emily’s experience is far from unusual. Loneliness is pervasive, particularly among younger people. We’re moving across the country, ripping ourselves away from social networks that can take years to construct. We’re delaying marriage and kids, or skipping them entirely. We’re working all the time, often alone, outside the confines of a traditional office and without the camaraderie of coworkers.

To be sure, there are valid, positive reasons to move, to live alone, to not marry or start a family, or to trade a 9-to-5 job for the flexibility of freelancing. But these societal shifts coincide with a rise in the percentage of people who report feeling adrift, lacking a sense of community or an offline support system.

Capitalism abhors a vacuum, and into this collective social void has stepped a fleet of companies and entrepreneurs selling an end to social isolation. Over the past decade, on-demand connection has become both a big business and a powerful marketing opportunity. From co-living apartments to coworking spaces to apps that help facilitate human connection, there is a lot of investment and infrastructure being built around services that help humans bond with other humans.

But does any of it work? Or is it just an expensive and, for many, inaccessible VC-funded Band-Aid on a much larger social problem?

Since its launch in 2010, WeWork, which was recently valued at $47 billion, has made facilitating connection an explicit part of its mission statement. As co-founder Miguel McKelvey told the New York Times, the company isn’t simply “building a work space.” Instead, it’s “building a new infrastructure to rebuild social fabric and rebuild up the potential for human connection.” Hundreds of competitors have launched in cities across the country, with most promoting themselves not just as a place people can come to focus but as incubators of meaningful human interaction.

In 2016, WeWork launched WeLive, which takes the premise of coworking and ups the ante by having members live together. (Its official goal is to “transform the rigid and isolating housing model of yesterday into a flexible and community-driven experience for today.”) Since then, co-living has gone from an oddity to a fixture in cities like New York, Washington, DC, Austin, Texas, San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver, which attract young transplants.

As shared work and living spaces have gone mainstream, so have services that help users make offline connections. Hey Vina, an app designed to help women develop new friendships, was founded in 2015. A few months later, the dating app Bumble launched Bumble BFF, which does the same thing. Today, there are enough friend-making apps that you can choose one based on your demographic: For new mothers looking to make other mom friends, there’s Peanut. For dog owners who want to meet other dog owners, there’s Meet My Dog. For those who want to find other people who share their hobbies, from learning a new language to “exploring your inner worlds with the careful use of entheogens,” there’s Meetup.

In various forms, all these companies are offering the promise of connection. “We’re doing this because we believe there is huge value in helping people be part of a community,” Tribe’s Smith says.

Social pain literally changes the way the mind works. Spearheaded by John Cacioppo, the late neuroscientist who studied loneliness for nearly two decades at the University of Chicago, researchers have found convincing evidence that when the condition is prolonged, it puts the brain into self-preservation mode. This is what makes loneliness such a tragedy — and a trap. Hypervigilant to social threats, the lonely brain detects them everywhere, wreaking havoc on the body by putting the nervous system on constant alert and spurring further isolation.

A recent nationwide survey of 20,000 adults found that nearly half of Americans report feeling alone or left out some or all of the time. What is often missed in the corresponding coverage, says Steve Cole, a genetics researcher at UCLA who frequently collaborated with Cacioppo, is that loneliness is not aloneness. Instead, it’s the subjective feeling that you lack meaningful relationships or a solid support system, an important distinction.

Modern life is studded with situations that sever us from our social network. Going to college, relocating for a job, losing a family member, becoming a new parent: All can momentarily thrust us into a state of social pain. “In the literature, there is a distinction between the chronically lonely and the temporally lonely,” says Alice Wang, an associate marketing professor at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business whose work focuses on the effects loneliness and social exclusion have on consumer behavior.

Unlike chronically lonely people, those who are situationally lonely — a good example is a first-semester college student who is removed from her friends and family — haven’t sunk into learned passivity. Instead, they hunger for connection. For this group, Wang says, connection-based services could help.

For the chronically lonely, it’s likely not enough. Placing someone whose brain is in overdrive into a social setting with strangers “could actually make things worse,” Cole says. These companies are attempting to address a clear societal need, but “we get confused by the hunger and what it’s for.”

In 2009, at the age of 23, Olivia June decided to move to San Francisco. She lacked any concrete career plans and liked the city, and, most importantly, her aunt let her crash rent-free.

The transition was a lonely one. She didn’t have close friends in the area, and without a job, she didn’t make any. Days and weekends passed in a blur of TV marathons. (America’s Next Top Model was a particular favorite.) June remembers looking wistfully out the window as groups of laughing, sunlit girls passed by on their way to brunch or yoga and wondering: How do I get to know them? How do I become them? She was deeply lonely but resisted even identifying the feeling because it felt too shameful.

About a month after she moved, she tried “hacking” OkCupid by messaging girls she saw on the app and asking if they’d be down to hang out platonically.

“I got a lot of rejections,” she said.

June did manage to go on a few friend dates this way, and slowly made more acquaintances by chatting up people at the bus stop, in line at her local coffee shop, and while volunteering. Still, she struggled to find “my people.” In 2012, in an effort to cast a wider net, she began hosting monthly happy hours at wine bars around the city. Talking to people at these events, she realized feelings of loneliness and isolation were widespread.

Christina Animashaun/Vox

In 2015, June founded Hey Vina, an app for helping women develop new friendships. The response was enthusiastic. Within hours, she had more than 1000 sign-ups; within a week, she had more than 100,000. Today, the app has more than 1 million users and is available in 158 countries.

As Hey Vina was launching, the dating site Bumble was fielding requests from users who wanted a convenient way to make platonic connections, not just romantic ones. “Once you leave college, it’s not easy to make friends anymore,” says chief brand officer Alex Williamson. In 2016, the company unveiled Bumble BFF, a feature designed for women looking to do exactly that.

When Stephanie Laurie, 24, a senior accountant at the Seattle-based firm Moss Adams, moved in with her boyfriend last year, she found herself in this group. “I’m at a point in my life where I’ve realized a lot of the friendships I’ve made are kind of shallow,” she says, including a handful of college relationships based primarily on drinking and partying. Now that she’s living with her boyfriend, she’s begun to think more seriously about weddings, specifically, “if I were to get married anytime soon, who would I ask to be my bridesmaids? Who would say yes? Who would make the time and commitment to be able to say yes?” she says. “I’m coming up short.”

She signed up for Bumble BFF last June. Her first impression was that ghosting was just as bad, if not worse, on Bumble BFF than on Bumble proper. There were a lot of seemingly cool people on the app, but it was difficult to meet anyone in person. She’d match with someone promising, exchange texts, and arrange a coffee date — only to be canceled on, often with little notice. “The first time I was like, ‘What a flake,’” she says. “But this happened at least six times!” (Ghosting on Bumble BFF is a problem, conceded Williamson, one that they’re working to address. “We are a values-driven company and ghosting goes against every single one of those values.”)

While Laurie hasn’t made any close friends through the app, she plans to keep swiping. In September, she became a Bumble city ambassador, which means she is paid by the company to organize monthly events in Seattle. Now that the weather is getting nicer, she hopes the flaking will subside.

The Tribe experience isn’t for everyone, says Braden, an extroverted New Zealander who moved into the co-living space last year. While most other residents are great, some have struggled to fit in. Since he arrived, a few people have voluntarily moved out after experiencing what he calls social policing: “It could be a personality thing ... you’re just not fitting in.”

Kenneth Sterling, the company’s director of business management, confirms that Tribe is meant for those who don’t just want to join a community but are socially equipped to do so. This means being willing to leave your room but also implies you fall into a certain age bracket. While Tribe is racially diverse — 50 percent of residents are people of color, per Smith — no one looks older than 35.

Unstated but understood is the fact that members must also be in a financial position to join — Tribe is less expensive than many co-living spaces in New York City, but it’s far from cheap. Room and board, even for shared rooms, come at a price point far beyond what many young transplants can afford. (Tribe has run an informal scholarship program in the past, providing free rent for six months to an entrepreneur and a filmmaker, an initiative Smith says he hopes to continue in the future.)

The application process, which includes a video interview and a credit check, is designed to test for financial and cultural fit. But it can’t catch everything. “We’ve had people who were shy at first, but eventually they get into it,” Sterling says. “We’ve had people who didn’t. We worked it out where they were able to leave. No harm, no foul. If it’s not a right fit, it’s not a right fit.”

This mentality is a problem for the chronically lonely, says Wang, the marketing professor. The lonely brain, running on overdrive, is acutely sensitive to “social policing,” both real and imagined. “If they sense anything negative, they withdraw immediately,” she says. “And if they feel others are connecting without them, it can feel worse.” As she says this, I’m transported back to the first few weeks of college, the agonizing sensation of listening to the strains of laughter and music drift into my otherwise silent room.

What can be done to help the chronically lonely? According to Cole, it likely won’t be a company whose primary goal is to generate revenue for investors by collecting user data or charging a premium for services such as workplaces and apartments. Chronic loneliness is a difficult nut to crack, but there’s some evidence that homing in on a mission or purpose larger than oneself — which often requires working with others — can help isolated individuals successfully integrate back into the social fold.

A community is a community in large part because its members — even the ones who don’t always get along — are actively striving toward something greater, which benefits the group as a whole. It could be to survive (in the case of our ancestors), to meet a client deadline (if you’re part of an advertising team), or to register voters (if you’re volunteering for a political campaign).

In this vein, Laurie, the Bumble BFF city representative, has made closer friends with her fellow Bumble Seattle ambassadors then she has with people she’s met through the app itself, in part because they share a goal: to throw engaging events for local Bumble users. They regularly collaborate and communicate through group text. At this point, “I can talk with them about a lot of things,” Laurie says. “I feel very close to them.”

“That’s what’s missing from all of this,” Cole says. Co-living companies are useful in that they provide seamless housing and built-in roommates, often in cities where finding an apartment can be headache-inducing. Matchmaking apps facilitate coffee dates between people with similar interests; coworking collectives provide a place to focus, network, and attend events. For healthy individuals looking to meet new people, these services can undoubtedly help.

Emily recently left Tribe, and moved with four people she met at the co-living space into their own five-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. The rent is far cheaper — she’s paying $850 a month instead of $1,400 — and it feels good to settle somewhere that feels more permanent, with housemates she already knows and likes. “Tribe gave me was this awesome friend group where I can feel confident in saying, yes, I want to stay in New York,” she says.

For someone in the throes of prolonged loneliness, it’s difficult to imagine the result would be the same. Building a relationship, much less a community, takes a tolerance for risk and rejection, commitment, and often, a unifying mission that extends beyond “meeting new people.” Despite the millions of dollars flowing into these startups, that’s not something that can be VC-backed into existence.


Inside the very strange, very expensive race to “de-age”


The terrible paradox of air pollution and climate change

Even Better

Take the visitor’s approach to exploring your own city

View all stories in The Highlight

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.