Will Social Discovery Apps Lead to Meaningful Relationships?

There was a lot of talk this year at SXSW about social media discovery apps (Highlight, Glancee, Sonar, Banjo, etc.), which got me thinking about social media and how it affects relationships. Now, I have been accused of having too optimistic a view at times, but I think one of the most powerful aspects of social is that it has provided a deeper level of connection to people that, in the past, we may have viewed just as casual friends, work friends, or friends of friends.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying this as a blanket statement across all of our social connections. There are lots of studies showing that people’s desire to appear popular by amassing large followings (i.e., 500+ “friends”) is in fact not a reflection of true connections. In fact, a study by Robin Dunbar of Oxford University showed that the human brain is limited to maintaining only about 150 meaningful relationships. An even more telling study by Matthew Brashears of Cornell University found that the number of true confidants the average American has, has dropped from three to two over the last 25 years, and that the percentage of people who don’t confide in anyone about important matters has skyrocketed from 8 percent to 25 percent.

The deeper connection I’m referring to is not in this top 1 percent of friends, but rather a subset of connections that, without the proliferation of social networks, would never have developed into deeper relationships. This is the network that you now reach out to when you need emotional support, the friends who crack you up on a daily basis with their posts, the ones you might meet for lunch, arrange a kids’ playdate with, or who might send you a little something in a care package.

As an example, my wife and I have a friend who was a part of our extended circle when we lived in Los Angeles. She was someone we typically didn’t hang out with one-on-one, but always with a group of other friends. She now sends us fruit from her backyard so we can have a little bit of California in Atlanta. Our relationship evolved through a higher level of social participation in each other’s lives as well as a health connection that was born out of a Vegetarian Mamas Facebook group that my wife runs. So, what started as an occasional, casual friendship has grown online and translated into a deeper offline relationship. I believe this is only because she now, through social media, has a view into our daily lives and we into hers.

So, how does this new breed of social discovery apps factor into our online relationships? If you’re not familiar with these applications, they serve to connect you with people who are close by and share a tie like mutual friends, similar interests, or the same hometown. These are also sometimes referred to, tongue-in-cheek, as “hookup apps” because they serve as a nice way to break the ice by giving you a virtual introduction. Of course, this same ice breaking can be used as a networking tool at conferences and meetings.

There are some well-founded concerns about these types of applications being utilized in connection with stalking incidents. However, as is the case with all social network platforms, as the category matures, I’m confident the right level of security restrictions will be put into place.

Are these applications just propagating more vapid relationships? I would say probably less so than a typical “cold” approach someone might have at a bar or coffee house. At least with these digital connections, there is something more that the two people involved have in common outside of just physical attraction. Also, the physical and online relationships are defined not by how the connections are discovered, but rather by how the relationship develops afterward. Looking back to when online dating began, there were many people who felt connections made online were just too impersonal to be meaningful. However, online dating sites have an amazing track record of connecting individuals and forming long-lasting relationships. If discovery apps catch on, it will be interesting to see if they can similarly develop into a common and accepted path leading to real-world connections.

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