Finding Your People: How to Make Friends Online

Almost all of us can remember a time in childhood when, in a new place for the first time, we spent an hour at a playground and formed a whole new set of friends just like that.  If you’re a parent, you’ve probably seen your kids do that as well. 

As adults, we can only marvel at kids’ ability to form friendships.  We “grown-ups” aren’t nearly as trusting, and it’s often, unfortunately, because of lived experience.  For adults it’s often more practical, and safer, to connect first online and then, maybe, connect in the real world.  

If this describes you, here’s our quick primer on how to make friends online and then (safely) take them offline when the time is right.  

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It’s Legitimately Hard to Form and Grow Friendships as Adults

The COVID pandemic reminded a lot of us about the importance of friendships.  When normal life came to a screeching (if temporary) halt, many of us found that our friends helped keep us sane and centered.  Some of us lost friends as well, not necessarily to the disease itself but because we didn’t manage to stay connected when normal life was disrupted. 

COVID was an extreme example, but we lose friends ongoingly even in normal times.  It’s well-documented that new parents lose friends (especially childless ones) under the pressure of parenting, though eventually, you’ll gain new ones through meeting other parents at your kids’ activities.  Many of us will move to a new city for work or personal reasons, and leave a whole set of friendships behind.  We’ll lose friends over time to misunderstandings or bruised feelings, and some friendships will simply peter out on their own. 

Replacing those friends with new ones gets harder as we get older. We’re not going to school anymore, surrounded by a “buffet selection” of candidates for friendship.  We’re also burdened by time constraints and busy-ness, and our own emotional baggage can get in the way (“low trust” and “lack of time” are two of the most consistent reasons researchers hear from study participants).  Post-COVID, there’s been a surge of articles in leading publications about this very challenge. 

Why It’s Easier to Connect Online

So yes, friendships are harder as an adult, but they’re also crucial to our well-being in the long term.  So while it’s challenging, it’s a challenge we all need to face sooner or later.  And for many of us, the easiest and best way to seek out new connections is online. 

There are a lot of reasons this is true.  For starters, as we’ve mentioned, once you’re out of school, you simply don’t meet as many potential friends.  Workplaces can sometimes fill that gap (especially in high-risk scenarios like first responders or the military), but many of us work from home now, and even in a large workplace you probably have just a small pool of direct coworkers. 

Online your pool of potential friends is essentially the entire world, or at least that part of it that speaks a language you know.  That’s arguably the biggest advantage of connecting virtually, but there are lots of others: 

  • It’s time-efficient because even a few stray moments in your day will be long enough to check in on multiple sites or apps. 
  • It’s easier for introverts because we don’t have to battle the innate stress of being around others. 
  • Most apps and sites where people gather use some combination of human moderation and software tools to help weed out scammers and monitor for harassment and stalking. 
  • You can interact with people without putting yourself physically at risk, and without revealing anything more about yourself than you choose. 
  • Because the internet is such a vast place, you can find people who share your own interests no matter how “niche” they may be. 

That’s just a representative handful of reasons why you might choose to pursue friendships online, at least initially.  Your list will probably include others, but the central point remains that it can be easier (and neatly addresses both the “time” and “trust” issues).

Finding Potential Friends Online

At this point, you may be saying to yourself “Okay, I’m convinced, but how should I actually do it?  How do I even start?”

Well, you have plenty of options.  If anything there may be too many options, so take a moment before you start and think about the kind of people you want to connect with.  You almost certainly have a handful of core traits, interests, and things that you’re passionate about, and people who share at least some of those traits or interests are the ones you’re likeliest to bond with.  So your next step is to find out where they gather and to join them.

Google Is Your Friend

Googling “connect with people who love to [your interest]” is a good starting point, or “forums for [your interest]” or “[your interest] discussion groups.”  

In those search results, you’ll find plenty of potential online hangouts.  Pick one or two that seem active and frequently visited, and “lurk” for a while to get a feel for the place. If they’re genuinely “your kind of people” you can start posting, or if you’re uncomfortable with it you can just close your account and try another. 

Use Social Media to Find Your Niche

Using the search functions within major social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok to find pages or communities that share your interests.  In fact, if you’re deliberate about liking and sharing things that indicate your interests, the platforms’ algorithms will usually start suggesting them to you. 

Try Chat Rooms (Safely)

Seeking out chats where people who share your interests gather. This can include platforms like Twitch and Discord, Reddit and its vast collection of specialized sub-Reddits, communities on WhatsApp, and so on. Even some online publications offer chat forums where members can discuss and comment on articles, and exchange private messages with each other. 

Signing up for one of the many new “find friends” apps or sites that have popped up.  They follow more or less the same model as dating apps, and in fact dating app Bumble has its own “Bumble For Friends,” or BFF (hat tip to the marketing team for that one!).  Other popular options include Meetup, Wink, Yubo (video-chat centered), and Peanut (for those new moms whose old friendships are withering). 

Important reminder: These examples are offered for your convenience, but Spokeo does not recommend or endorse any app or platform. 

Once you’ve chosen a platform and found “your people” on it, you’re ready to start the actual work of making friends. 

How to Make Friends Online (Safely)

At some point, whether you like it or not, a fundamental part of how to find friends is just putting yourself out there.  A perk to doing this online is that you get to choose how much of yourself you reveal, and in what settings.  Some platforms make it mandatory to use your real name (great for accountability, but not for privacy); some allow pseudonyms or anonymous posting (great for privacy, but lots of potential for abuse); and some split the difference by requiring your real name but allowing on-site pseudonyms or usernames. 

That kind of calculation can affect your choice of platform, especially if you’ve been stalked or victimized online before (or if you’re rebuilding your life after fleeing an abusive partner, for that matter).  On platforms that permit anonymous or pseudonymous posting, by all means, use it.  On platforms that don’t, you can usually opt to keep most of your information (location, photos, connections) private, and keep the public part of your profile as low-key as possible. 

Once you’ve taken care of that basic level of housekeeping, you’re ready to engage.  It’s usually best to ease in slowly, and get a feel for the temperament of others in the group as you go.  A suitable progression might look something like this: 

  • Comment on someone else’s post, when they’ve shared something that interests or moves you.  A sincere and brief compliment or a pertinent question (“Whatever inspired you to paint/write/do that?”) is a good opening move. 
  • Contribute to the discussion yourself.  You might share your expertise in an existing topic, for example, or share a life experience in a conversation where those are solicited. 
  • Reach out to one or more individuals within the group through direct messaging, once you’ve established a presence within the community.  It’s an opportunity to be a little more open and forthcoming than you might be within the larger group: a chance to be supportive to someone who’s down, perhaps, or to open up and explain why something they’ve said resonated for you. 
  • Exchange contact information with one or more of your new acquaintances once you’ve talked enough within the group, or through direct messages, to feel comfortable with them. 

By opening up slowly, and limiting the hard information about “the real you” you share publicly, you’ll have the opportunity to gain (and build) trust within the community before going all-in on your new friendships. 

If at any point along the way someone makes you feel uncomfortable or demands a disproportionate share of your time and attention, you can still disengage.  In worst-case scenarios (potential scammers, abusive language, and so on) you can report the offender to a community’s moderators, or to the platform itself, or simply block and ignore them

Getting Closer Online, or Meeting Offline: Trust, but Verify

Everything up to this point has been, essentially, dipping your toe into the waters.  But If you’re going to develop real friendships, that means sooner or later you’ll have to take a chance and dive in. With online friends, that means opening up and revealing more of your real self: your emotions, your experiences, and–at times –details about your real-world existence. 

That’s emotionally risky, but it’s also risky in a more direct and personal sense if the other person isn’t acting in good faith.  Most of the people you’ll meet online are who they say they are (at most, perhaps, they’re presenting a slightly enhanced version of their real selves), but there’s definitely a risk that you’ll encounter the other kind.  So, before you attempt to connect in a more meaningful way, it’s prudent to verify that they’re who (and what) they say they are. 

Some important verification steps include: 

  • Reviewing their social media profiles (if you have them) with a critical eye.  Are they full of friends and in-jokes and random silly pictures, like everyone else’s?  Or is it just a few months old, with a handful of carefully posed photos and a bunch of generic shared memes?  If the latter, it’s more likely to be a “sock puppet” account and not a real person. 
  • Searching their photos using Google’s Reverse Image Search.  If their pictures were stolen from someone else’s profile, or are used with multiple names across a number of platforms, or come from a stock photo site, those are all red flags.  If, on the other hand, your search just brings up the same person’s other social media profiles, that’s a good sign. 
  • Searching their name, phone number, or email address – whatever you’ve got – on Spokeo (if all you have is a username, use the email search).  Spokeo’s search results will more often than not bring back enough information for you to decide whether your new friend is for real.  In any given search this might include their real address, their age, whether they own their home, names of others they share their address with, and really telling details like marital status or criminal records (additional fees may apply – Spokeo is not a substitute for your own due diligence, especially if you have concerns about a person’s criminal history).  It’ll also show their other social media profiles, dating apps, chat forums, and similar online activities.  Browsing those will tell you fairly quickly whether they’re always the person they seem when they’re talking with you. 

There are some extra precautions you might want to take before meeting in person.  One obvious option is to join a social activity with several others, so there will be plenty of witnesses around (it’s also potentially less awkward and stressful than a one-on-one meetup).  A few others include: 

  • Meeting during daylight hours.
  • Meeting in a public place.
  • Letting friends and family know where you are.
  • Having a trusted friend or family member track the location of your cell phone until you’re safely home.
  • Arranging an innocuous “safe word” in advance, with a friend.  Have the friend call you at a specified time, and if you’re in any way uncomfortable with how the meetup is progressing you’ll slip that word into the conversation.  Your friend then rides to the rescue. 
  • Bringing your own transportation, rather than relying on your new friend to bring you home. 

Your Circle of Trust

Adding someone to your trusted circle of friends is a big step, and it goes both ways.  If you want to find that ride-or-die friend, you also have to be that ride-or-die friend.  If they share something with you in confidence, keep it confidential.  If they open up to you, don’t mock them for it or gossip about them with others in the community. 

Remember, they’re taking exactly the same risks you are: any time you open yourself up to someone else, there’s at least some chance of your trust being violated.  It’s an unfortunate reality, one that most of us learn the hard way on the road to adulthood.  But ultimately it’s trust, and the emotional connection that grows from trust, that lies at the heart of meaningful friendships.  You can’t have one without the other. 

By providing the tools you need to learn how to make friends online, Spokeo can provide a foundation for that trust and make your initial interactions less of a step into the dark. It can’t possibly substitute for learning to know someone personally, but it can at least give you the confidence you need to start. 

Sources

Frontiers in Psychology: I Think Friendship Over This Lockdown Like Saved My Life” – Student Experiences of Maintaining Friendships During COVID-19 Lockdown: An Interpretative Phenomenological Study; Amy Maloy et al., 2022 

Refinery29: “It Feels Like a Loss”: How COVID Made Friends Drift Apart

Today’s Parent: I Never Expected to Lose So Many Friends After Becoming a Parent

Psychology Today: Making Adult Friends is Hard: Here are 40 Reasons Why

Frontiers in Psychology: Adult Friendship and Wellbeing: A Systematic Review With Practical Implications; Christos Pezirkianidis et al., 2023

Bumble: Find Your People With Bumble For Friends 

Meetup: Home

Wink: Dating and Friends

Yubo: Home

Peanut: A Safe Space for Women to Meet and Find Support

Protocol: How Facebook’s Real-Name Policy Changed Social Media Forever

Google Search Help: Search With an Image on Google

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