Walking his dog through the streets of Venice, California one night, Elliot noticed a beautiful, sort-of-familiar face ride past him on a bike. He didn't say hello or ask if she was the girl he thought she was—instead, he messaged her on Tinder. Turns out they had been talking on-and-off for months.
“All of a sudden, there she was, looking incredible, and I thought, 'Why have I not asked her out yet'? We’re practically neighbors,” said the 31-year-old (whose name and others have been changed throughout this piece for privacy).
Next thing he knew, they were going on an actual date, laughing, grabbing beers by the beach. "We got along really well, right off the bat," he said. A few days later she asked him to hang out with her and some friends, and Elliot thought, "Why not?"
Over time, the relationship changed. “We hung out as a group a bunch of times, and then suddenly, the idea of dating just wasn’t in the cards anymore,” he told Fusion. "Which was fine, because I had just made this great group of friends.” After weighing the pros and cons of continuing to pursue a romantic relationship, he decided having new friends was worth more. "I realized that if I screwed up this friendship with her, it would screw up my friendship with all of her friends, too."
Dating apps Tinder and Grindr may be primarily geared toward helping users hook up, but more and more of their combined 55 million monthly users are finding real-life friendships through their interactions. Some users, like Elliot, are developing platonic relationships by accident, while others are seeking them out.
"Several of my now-platonic friends started out as Grindr hookups," said Will, a 35-year-old in Manhattan. In fact, one of his closest friendships began this way. "At a certain point this guy fell madly in love with (another) man, so we stopped hooking up, but we kept hanging out," he told Fusion. “I think we realized we liked being around each other.”
That initial spark didn’t lead to love, but it did lead to coffee dates, drinks and dinners, and eventually morphed into BFF status. "Now we tell each other everything," he said. "I became a confidante he could talk to about his love for this unavailable guy, and he became a trusted friend I could talk to about my own problems with men. I consider him one of my closest friends."
Grace, 28, moved from Los Angeles to Boston last year and found Tinder useful while getting to know a new city. “I went on a date with a guy who was also new to Boston,” she told Fusion. “I wasn't really feeling it, but we ended up deciding to hang out as friends, which worked out well, since neither of us knew anyone.”
Grace said she also used the app when she went to Barcelona to connect with local Spaniards—just as friends. “They knew where the best bars were!”
As anyone who's transitioned from college to the "real world" knows, making new friends as an adult can be as tricky as finding love. While we're in school, we benefit from built-in social networks and constant access to people our own age. Once we're let loose, however, we're forced to become more proactive about forging friendships.
Since the 1950s, sociologists have said that making friends as an adult usually requires three conditions: Proximity, unplanned interactions, and a private enough environment where two people can confide in each other. Tinder and Grindr help to provide at least one and maybe more of these variables, thanks to their location tracking—only showing matches within a nearby radius—and the intimacy that the apps' messaging tools can provide.
Bryan, a 25-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, told Fusion that he wasn’t actively looking for friends on Tinder, but he ended up with one, anyway. “I recently went on a fantastic date, and couple days later, the guy told me he wasn't ready to be in a relationship,” he said. “But I enjoyed him as a person, and we decided to be friends. We have hung out several times since our date, and he's a cool guy.”
Of course, relationships born out of hook-up app flirtations beg the question: Are the friendships truly platonic, or is one person simply waiting around for more?
While friendships forged under any circumstances can sometimes involve unrequited romantic feelings, Will, the Grindr user from New York, said that wasn't an issue in his experience. “Neither one of us has any illusions that our friendship will ever turn into a romantic relationship," he said of his close friend. "Even in the beginning, it was never about that.”
Elliot echoed Will. "We're totally platonic," he said of his Tinder friend. "At this point, it would be weird crossing that line."
Perhaps the very nature of Tinder and Grindr—the fact that neither app has a reputation for leading to longterm relationships—makes it easier to transition into friendship, since the initial meetup never carried the expectation of real love. As Elliot pointed out about his new lady friend, “I never saw a longterm relationship with her, but there are so many aspects of her personality that are great on a friend level.”
To be sure, other dating app users we spoke with pointed out that it can be difficult to make friends through the apps because of their focus on romantic rendezvous. Many people aren’t like Elliot—they’re not open to being "just friends."
"I think the general premise of Tinder is to hook-up, and therefore people don't usually like to be put in the friend zone," said Eliza, a 28-year-old also living in Los Angeles, who has not made any friends from online dating apps. “It’s like a mild form of rejection.”
Another flaw in finding friends through hook-up apps, at least with Tinder, is the gender limitation. Heterosexual users are only shown profiles for the opposite sex—and while we'd all like to believe that Harry and Sally's cinematic fairy tale can be replicated in the real world, studies have shown that men and women often misinterpret so-called platonic relationships.
Specifically, men are more likely to be romantically interested in their female friends than the women are in them, and they tend to overestimate these friends' sexual interest in them. On the flip side, women are equally blind, viewing their lack of attraction as mutual.
With this in mind, perhaps the world is waiting for a new friendship app—one where men and women could connect with the same or opposite sex. “There are a lot of guys on Grindr who say they're just looking for friends in their profiles,” said Will. "Why they need a picture of themselves in their underwear for that, I have no idea."
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.