I'm sitting in a dive bar in San Francisco's Lower Haight neighborhood, when a greasy man in a greasy suit approaches me and asks if he can buy me a drink. I decline; I'm with someone. When he asks if my companion is already in the bar, I shrug. I've never met my "friend."
Welcome to the limitless world of tech services in 2016. It's a world where you can have your monthly tampons delivered to your doorstep, meet, date, and dump a romantic interest, or even curate an insanely specific group of girlfriends via an app.
The latter is thanks to Hey! VINA, an app launched in late January of this year. Operating more or less like a non-sexual Tinder for women, VINA seeks to match ladies who share similar zip codes together to do "friend things." The succinct profiles are made up of one photo (pulled from Facebook), a short bio, and a collection of data that users generate from playing personality quizzes. Taglines read anything from "Looking for new girlfriends who enjoy cultural activities, exploring, and brunch" to "Trying to find other mommy friends!" If you aren't interested, you swipe left on a profile. If you want to chat, swipe right.
Finding friends as an adult is notoriously difficult, and as such, the spectrum of women who use Hey! VINA seems to span all walks of life. In their bios, some users reveal that they are new to town. Some are too busy taking care of their families or working 40+ hours a week to go out and socialize in their freetime. Some are straight up looking to pull a Taylor Swift and cultivate a full-on lady-army. For me, a woman who hasn't been to school in about decade and who works alone at home, the idea of a "girl squad" is completely foreign -- but not unwelcome.
"It's for women who actually, genuinely have #squadgoals," explains co-creator, Olivia Poole. Poole developed the app alongside friend and former colleague, Jen Aprahamian, a self-described "typical SIlicon Valley kid" who taught herself how to code at the age of nine in order to create video games for herself. The two became fast friends while working at General Assembly in San Francisco, and Aprahamian claims it was this friendship that the app is based on. "I want other people to feel that way anytime they meet someone new. The instant we're going to hang out, we're going to be friends. You don't have to feel like you're a weirdo."
This idea of instant friendship is no longer specific to Hey! VINA. Feminist dating app, Bumble, recently announced their BFF mode, a setting which allows its users to switch from searching for dates, to searching for platonic, same-sex friendships. Like VINA, matches are found by swiping left or right on photos of potential partners. And as I begin swiping on VINA, I find that the feeling of guilt that inevitably creeps up when using a dating app like Bumble -- this idea of shopping for people -- doesn't go away when the goal is to find friendship, not sex. As I scroll through profile after profile, I find myself wanting to give everyone a chance, even though in all actuality there are some people I obviously won't have much in common with. This isn't Tinder where you can tell if you'll be attracted to someone simply by looking at them -- and in that way the task of swiping is much more difficult.
Photo via Instagram
I meet my first match at a trendy wine bar in downtown San Francisco. By the time I arrive, I've gone through every possible outcome of the evening in my head and am sweating profusely like it's a real date. When I spot my "pal" I could cry: She's A.) A real person, and B.) Seemingly completely normal. We spend our time together doing the "friend things" that Hey! VINA promotes: We split a bottle of wine, talk about our jobs, and show each other pictures of our pets.
It's not lost on me that the trickiest part of maintaining a relationship is simply maintaining the relationship. When I walk away from the evening feeling good, I'm also left wondering if the friendship will pick up momentum. I feel like a stereotypically over-stimulated millennial as I start brainstorming an app that will help me remember to make an effort and reach out to my new friend. When she texts me periodically later in the week to chat about a man she's been seeing, I'm relieved. It feels as natural as any other friendship I've made, and I start to think there might really be something to this.
It's in the dive bar that my second date rescues me from the greasy man. She's a woman who has just moved from LA to San Francisco for a job in tech who immediately launches into a very funny, very graphic story about getting a violent case of food poisoning during her weekend camping trip. It's unclear if she's drunk, over-the-top, or both. I'm not opposed to any of the above, and leave thinking that I wouldn't be opposed to hearing about her ailments again another time.
When I discuss the dates with a friend that I've had since the dark, pre-internet days, she still isn't sold. "I don't know," she asks. "Should I use it?"
I find myself wanting to be friends with women all of the time; women who work at restaurants I frequent, women who I routinely run into on public transportation, and women who I see walking their dogs around my neighborhood. But even still, I feel as though I have no way to approach them. I've lost count of the number of times I've been approached by men that I don't know, yet I can't remember the last time a women just started talking to me out of the blue. Chatting up strangers seems completely natural when the premise is sexual, but how do you "pick up" someone platonically? Isn't a friendship app a logical solution?
I think about my first VINA date, and remember that we have plans to hang out the next day. I tell my friend yes, she should use it. Yes, to women everywhere. What do you have to lose?
Splash photos via Instagram