Welcome to the app-i-fication of friendship

Millennials increasingly feel isolated and alone. Can the internet help solve a problem it created?

Welcome to the app-i-fication of friendship

Millennials increasingly feel isolated and alone. Can the internet help solve a problem it created?

Megan, a 37-year-old copywriter in Washington, D.C., is really good at making friends in unlikely places. She’s made friends on Craigslist looking for salsa dancing partners. She’s made friends through volunteer projects and out of online dates. She once made a friend — whom she now considers a close one — at an exercise class.

And like many 20 and 30-something urbanites — a notoriously novelty-driven bunch that is busy as hell, and marrying and starting families later, if at all — she’s also turned to the sharing economy to do it. She’s ridden bikes and gone bar hopping in France with locals through Airbnb Experiences, the excursion arm of the popular travel lodging app, and logged into the “BFF function” on feminist dating app Bumble. Recently, she tried out MealTribes, a D.C.-based startup that brings a group of strangers together for a potluck meal.

Founded by 28-year-old Jared Gold and some friends in 2017, MealTribes bills itself as “a better way to authentically connect with peers nearby.” Prospective diners create a profile on the online platform by answering a brief questionnaire, with some optional questions not unlike those you’d find on a dating site: Are you a “nature lover,” an “advice guru” or a “chef”? If you could live as any person for a day — dead or alive — who would it be? Users then sign up online for either a weeknight dinner or weekend brunch, with six or seven strangers.

The MealTribes team matches diners up in groups according to age, then allows the groups to figure out who will host a given meal and what everyone will bring. Homemade contributions are encouraged, but store-bought food is acceptable. Aside from the cost of the food you bring to share, the experience is free, with no other obligations attached. (The founders are currently bootstrapping the platform, but are considering paid memberships, events, and other possible revenue streams in the future.)

I met Megan, who declined to use her last name for professional reasons, at a MealTribes get-together one Sunday in March. Over homemade frittatas and cobbler at a stranger’s apartment, she told me that MealTribes was one activity on her “bucket list” before an upcoming move to the San Diego area.

Can a one-off gathering of strangers really translate into friendship?

“I think it was just one of those things that looked fun,” she said. “It was just something to do before I leave D.C. and move to suburbia, where there probably won’t be as many of these activities to do.”

Washington City Paper, which reported on the first official MealTribes gathering, described the start-up as “cashing in on millennials’ obsession with the shared economy,” likening it to an “Uber or Air BnB for food and chit chat.” But MealTribes is capitalizing on something else, too: the so-called “loneliness epidemic” we’re all supposedly experiencing as urban millennials, though we’re way too cool to admit it. Like the New York-based, seder-centric OneTable, which bills itself as a supper club for people in their 20s and 30s looking to build a “seder tradition,” MealTribes offers an avenue for what Gold would later describe to me as a more “authentic” way of connecting.

But can a one-off gathering of strangers really translate into friendship? Dating apps, after all, were designed to make it easier to find people to date and hookup with; they’re now blamed with killing dating by giving us too many choices. Will friendship-driven startups face the same fate, destined to become a recipe for fleeting, non-committal connections?

“I think it’s hard for people to feel like they belong,” Gold told me. “Maybe they have a lot of friends, but how many good friends and how often are they available? Do they share the same interests? Part of belonging is actually having people that you have authentic conversations with.” Gold said MealTribes facilitates at least 10 meals (including weeknight dinners and Sunday brunches) per month across D.C. — and, he hopes, in other cities soon.

MealTribes gathering

MealTribes gathering

I was intrigued enough to try it out. The Sunday brunch potluck I attended was in a sparsely decorated one-bedroom apartment in the trendy Shaw neighborhood, a seeming bachelor pad that our host, Andrew Chen, was clearly hoping to break in (he told me that he’s lived there for a few years, but just hasn’t hosted much). Once everyone had arrived and the frittatas were out of the oven, we served ourselves from dishes set on Chen’s kitchen counter and gathered around his living room coffee table.

I found myself face-to-face with seven other MealTribes users, including Chen, Megan, a handful of Megan’s friends, and a young married couple who’d driven in from their home in Alexandria, Virginia. As with any other social gathering, some people seemed more at ease than others. A few guests partook in the mimosas and beer, but the dishes themselves took up the most conversational space: How do you make that homemade cold brew? Is this a frittata you’ve made us, or is it a quiche, and what’s the difference? Food is always a unifier.

At one point during the meal, Chen spoke up: “So, they give us ideas for conversation topics; sometimes there’s a theme,” he said. His face seemed to acknowledge that such a theme could feel a bit forced, but he persisted: “So, like, does anyone have any side hustles?”

The first MealTribes meals, on the heels of President Trump���s inauguration and the Women’s March, strongly discouraged political and career-related talk. That rule is a bit looser now. We talked briefly about the March for our Lives, which had happened in the city just the day before. A few people brought up their day jobs, but in only the broadest of strokes.

To my surprise, all of my fellow diners seemed well-versed in the art of meeting people and going on random adventures through apps (SoFar Sounds, which curates intimate concert experiences in small, homey venues for select groups, seemed to be favorite). As you might expect, dinner chit-chat mostly orbited around tropes of the urban, digital-age milieu; after hearing about Chen’s side hustle (a stake in a brewery in Mexico), we were onto podcasts, audiobooks, goat yoga, and the best places to read long-form journalism.

“I think it’s hard for people to feel like they belong.”
Jared Gold, MealTribes co-founder

Later, over the phone, Gold admitted to me that MealTribes diners are relatively self-selecting: “We’re intentionally kind of polarizing in what we do.”

I asked him what he meant.

“Not everyone is necessarily willing to book a sit-down with strangers,” he said. “It takes a certain kind of person to give that a shot and to prepare ahead of time by bringing a dish to share.” That type of person, Gold explained, is interested in “just having deeper, more meaningful conversations, sitting down for a meal in a place where we can hear each other, and maybe alcohol is not a focus. That’s what a lot of people are missing: authentically connecting.”

By way of an explanation, Gold pointed to the rise of social media and the decline of community centers and religious institutions at the heart of a neighborhood’s social fabric. He said that while he’s always had plenty of friends and acquaintances, he often finds that in day-to-day life, “people aren’t really representing themselves authentically.”

“It can be a rat-race to see who lives a cooler, more interesting life,” he said. “I think MealTribes appeals to those people who are...maybe not tired of their current friends, but looking to expand their social circles and get a change of scenery."

Not all startups that aim to foster new social bonds involve meals, of course. Long before there were meal clubs or platforms like MealTribes, there were Meetup groups. There’s the aforementioned Bumble BFF, and Vina, which bills itself as Tinder for platonic female friendships. Then there’s the crunchy “authentic relating movement,” a system of touchy-feely get-to-know-you-deeply techniques, born out of 1990s San Francisco, which The Atlantic recently dubbed “The Club Where you Bare Your Soul to Strangers.”

“I love that there’s an ecosystem of entrepreneurs and do-gooders who are thinking about this problem and trying to figure out ways to address it,” said Marc Dunkelman, a social science researcher at the Watson Institute at Brown University. His 2014 book, The Vanishing Neighbor, explores the ways our communities and neighborhoods have become fragmented, divided, and, well, less friendly over time. “But does a brunch of like-minded people engender conversations across people’s existing understanding of the world?” he asked.

MealTribes Halloween gathering

MealTribes Halloween gathering

Dunkelman’s skepticism makes sense: his work largely focuses on American individualism and how it’s contributed to an erosion of casual community ties: the person you see at your church or Rotary Club, for instance, with whom you may not always agree, or with whom you may have little in common. Though the apps and clubs of today overtly target a lack of social intimacy and “authenticity,” they tend to be less focused on fostering ideological diversity, instead emphasizing connections between people who might already share interests or a similar world view. Still, Dunkelman says, for any kind of casual meeting to gel into a more permanent bond, follow-through is key. And the medium for that follow-through matters, too.

He tells me the story of a time he served on a grand jury for a murder trial in Washington, D.C. After six weeks of deliberations and coffee breaks, he had become close with his fellow jurors, and one suggested keeping in touch through a listserv. “Someone hijacked the idea and decided to make a blog,” he recalls. Although blogging was trendy at the time, most members of the group found the idea of a group blog more cumbersome than a simple email chain. The group found itself at an impasse: “The whole thing fizzled,” Dunkelman said.

For MealTribes to really work as a salve for urban alienation, then, users who feel a “connection” with their fellow diners need to be able to follow up with them in a way that feels natural. MealTribers get each other's emails when they coordinating a given meal, but how do you express that you’d like to take a potluck acquaintance to the next friendship level?

Chen, for his part, admitted that this can be an awkward balance — one he hasn’t quite figured out yet. Unlike Megan, who told me she came to MealTribes because she “just [likes] to do these different kinds of things,” Chen seemed to be earnestly looking for new connections as well as experiences. He’s been based in D.C. for more than three years, but said he’s had much larger social networks in other cities: “It’d be incorrect to say [that] I don’t know anybody here, but it’s sorta like, ‘Hey, you’re married with two kids and live in Alexandria,’” he said. “It’s just logistically much harder.”

Chen heard about MealTribes, and Gold, through people in his apartment building, and has hosted three meals and counting. So has he made new friends, I wonder? Has there been any follow-up?

Not yet. “I sort of keep my expectations low,” he said. “[If] you really hit it off with someone — or you’re like, ‘Well I’ve always been interested in comedy, let me know the next time you go’ — I could see some immediate follow-up. Otherwise, that’s a pretty high bar to set.”

A few weeks later, though, I heard from Chen again: “I hosted another dinner last night, and I think you would have really enjoyed the vibe.”