During covid, I was really disappointed to wake up one day and realize that I had lost contact with a lot of my high school friends. To some extent there’s probably only so much I could’ve done. But there was also a part of me that was a frustrated. Was it my fault that I had lost touch with people I liked? Could I have been more proactive and done a better job? How could I let just a little bit of awkwardness get in the way of reaching out?
I still think about this experience in the pandemic, and it serves as a recurring nudge to get me to do a better job of staying in touch with my friends. Recently though I’ve been thinking about exploring these ideas more deeply and considering what might be the solution to this challenge, if there even is a reasonable one. I believe the issue of staying in touch with friends is crucial because, 1) there’s great research surrounding how quality relationships are the key to happiness and 2) we all have those friends who we’re not best friends with, but we like them and if we could just invest a little more time it could be a really fulfilling friendship…or we could just let them fall flat. Why is there a struggle with this? And is there a solution out there?
Why is it so difficult to stay in touch?
If we assume that your average young person is happier when they’re socializing with their friends, then why doesn’t everyone take action to stay connected? Why do 61 percent of those aged 18 to 25 reported high levels of loneliness? Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd recommends that “if every person who’s in pretty good shape can make a commitment to reaching out to one person they are concerned might be lonely once a week, that would be a good thing.” Is it really that straightforward?
Let’s trace back to the pandemic. We all suddenly stop seeing our friends for months, leading to an extended period where we learned to enjoy our own company. Arthur Brooks’ article for The Atlantic suggests that we may have learned to become more lonely because of the pandemic: “In a poll that the Pew Research Center conducted in May 2022, 21 percent of respondents said that socializing had become more important to them since the coronavirus outbreak, but 35 percent said it had become less important.”
If we view this averseness to socializing as a bad habit that’s developed over the last few years, then we find that similar to most bad habits, it’s pretty difficult to change. Brooks suggests loneliness is self-perpetuating — after you experience a long period of solitude, you may feel an inertia that keeps you from connecting with others. You might feel awkward reaching out, or you think that it’s too much effort to reconnect with an old friend. I’ve felt all these things, not because I didn’t care about that person anymore, but because it felt mentally challenging to reach out. The shift from seeing my friends all the time in high school to seeing them every few months after leaving for college, and on top of that having the pandemic, was like a double whammy for social connectedness.
On top of this inertia, there’s also new territory that young people have to explore at these times, unrelated to the effects of the pandemic. Many of my friends are starting to have to think long and hard about their careers and spend lots of time preparing for interviews or tests. Suddenly, there’s less and less free time to connect, and when you try to make plans and they fail it can feel very discouraging. These are of course things that everyone has to learn to manage regardless of whether a pandemic happens or not, but I believe that the pandemic has made young adults my age especially ill-equipped to deal with these things since their social isolation occurred during this critical transition from home to college. It was the worst timing possible.
Social media has also robbed digital-first people of the ability to maintain friendships in a meaningful way. When we’re following a friend on Instagram or Snapchat, there may be the false feeling that we’re still in touch with them. When you take some time to think about it, seeing your friend’s social media stories (essentially the highlights of their life) every one or two months absolutely does not sustain a friendship. You can see what they’ve been doing sure, but that’s no substitute for actually meeting them and having a conversation. It feels as though our standards of who we’re in touch with has been lowered as technology has improved and social media has given more visibility into everyone else’s lives.
In general, people are also less likely to discuss expectations for friendship compared to expectations with significant others, which can often lead to disappointment in friendships. The podcast How to Talk to People has an episode that talks about just this and I highly recommend it. Often times with our friendships we feel awkward about openly discussing things like how frequently we should stay in touch or how we feel when we can never make plans with them. This difficulty with transparent communication in our friendships can also make it challenging to stay in touch: if we never really discuss expectations for staying in touch, can we really be expected to follow through?
Our options for addressing this problem
Overall, I view the problem of staying in touch with friends as one of extreme importance, and I see two potential ways to solve it. We can try to solve this problem in an entrepreneurial manner, by creating a tech product that helps us with staying in touch with friends (plenty of this already exists btw). Or we can try to work on it on our own without the help of an app — by practicing better habits, learning from others, or seeing experts who can help us navigate relationships.
In the first scenario, apps like Covve or Garden allow us to organize all our relationships in one place, log interactions with others, and gives us reminders about when we should reach out to someone. I had never used an app like this until recently and part of my hesitation with doing so was that it felt like it would make my relationships more artificial — making keeping up with friends seem more like an automated task rather than something more organic. It felt a little wrong, as if I’d be reducing my friends to rows of names. This topic was well explored in Kaitlyn Tiffany’s Atlantic article: a person who used a spreadsheet to organize his relationships found that when he told his friends about it, “They were bothered because I transformed our friendship into something on a Google Docs and not something that was lived…they don’t like the mediation of technology helping our friendship growing stronger.” It’s important to know that this sort of method elicits a negative reaction from people, but as I thought about it more, I found it easier to get over this idea that I was automating something that should feel more natural. All the evidence I’ve discussed before suggests that in general we are far from perfect at staying in touch with our friends. People slip our mind. If I were to let things run its course organically, then I would be knowingly letting go of many of my relationships, all in the name of being “natural.” .
However, let’s also consider the other scenario where entrepreneurs don’t really view this as a profitable problem to solve, and we instead rely on advice from the occasional article from the Internet, our social circle, and professionals about how to stay in touch with our friends. The great part is that we already know what we need to do to be better: as we learned from psychologist Richard Weissbourd, all we really have to do is maybe reach out to one person a week, maybe on Sunday when we have some downtime, and we’ll find that we’re doing a much better job. This is not a technical problem like researching a cure for a disease or designing a spacecraft to go to Mars — we already have a good idea of the habits that will allow us to be in better touch with friends. One of the best pieces of advice I got from one of my NYU professors was whenever you think of someone, like an old friend that you haven’t talked to in a while, just call them and text them right on the spot. Reach out when it’s fresh on your mind. That technique has worked great for me. However, the issue with this sort of solution is that we don’t always have the discipline to develop these good habits, just like for many other things, like getting good sleep or exercising.
What’s To Be Done Then?
The reality is that no company has really taken off in the personal CRM space. There have been many companies created to tackle the issue, but none have really seemed to make it all that far. Currently it seems like there are few people in this world who want to spend money to help manage their relationships. But I believe that someone needs to build a company that will help bring relationship management into the mainstream. In my opinion, this is too important of a topic for solutions to hide within advice columns on the Internet or through word of mouth. There are too many benefits of staying close with friends, and there are too many challenges in modern society that keep individuals (and especially young people) from staying in touch. It’s not as simple as just remembering to call someone when we have busy lives and chaos all around us. We have bad habits that are difficult to break. We could really benefit from technology.
In past writing that I’ve done I haven’t really advocated for much. When diving deeper into edtech, I was closely observing policy changes, market trends, and shifts in consumer behavior that all pointed me towards the idea that microschooling was going to be important for education moving forward. It was the traditional VC approach to researching a market, and I was trying to predict what would happen. I can’t really say that there are the same promising industry trends are happening for relationship management apps. Journalists aren’t really talking about it, and it seems destined to be one of those things that the media will talk about every few years or so as more loneliness statistics come out. But I’m not predicting what I think is going to happen, like I might’ve done for edtech. Instead, I’m advocating for a particular problem that I believe deserves more recognition in tech. Perhaps the market demand will never be there and all the companies that have already been started have hit roadblocks for the same reasons. Maybe consumers will never be willing to give out money for something like this. But to me it’s the kind of consequential problem that entrepeneurs should consider solving.
The Path to Going Mainstream
I do see a path for a technology startup to breakout and bring “friendship management” into the mainstream. In order to visualize how this process of bringing something into the mainstream might happen, we can look into another healthy practice that’s become increasingly popular in the last 30 years.
Meditation can be dated to as far back as 5,000 BCE, but in 1960’s and 70’s it began to be formally studied for its medical benefits. Suddenly there was a biological explanation for practices that people had been doing for thousands of years. In addition to the growing scientific research on medicine, meditation became popular with celebrities like The Beatles, giving increased popularity to the practice during the hippie decades. In the 1990s, meditation began to distance itself from hippie culture, and more and more celebrities spread the word. Meditation has only continued to gain popularity in the 21st century, due to in part to the greater awareness surrounding mental health, but also because of companies like Headspace and Calm that have made curriculum and meditation content more accessible.
My belief is that healthy friendship management practices could follow a similar formula of scientific research + celebrity endorsement + greater accessibility through technology to become more mainstream. The body of scientific research is already there; we know that friendships help with our happiness and health. The celebrity endorsement part doesn’t quite exist however. And if anything, celebrities would often be a poor example in terms of managing friendships, as media tends to focus on feuds and falling outs. But my hope is that people of influence will start to spread the word about healthy friendships in the same way that consistent meditation and sleep is regularly preached by the people we admire. Without this endorsement, it’s very difficult to make relationship management into something that people will value for their health and thus be willing to spend their money on.
Finally, there’s still the opportunity for technology to help make friendship management more accessible and help create healthier habits. I’ve actually been using Covve for the last month or so and it’s been surprisingly useful. I can add people from my contacts on my phone and then just select how often I want to stay in touch with that person. Every week, Covve will then remind me to reach out to specific people based on the cadence that I set, and will also send reminders to me throughout the week if I haven’t gotten around to it yet. It’s the kind of gamification-y, a little pushy vibe that I get from other apps like Duolingo, but at the end of the day they work, you’re remembering to keep up with people close to you, and you’re happier. There’s certainly room for entrepreneurs to mess around with the exact features and capabilities of a friendship management product that I won’t dive into here, but I believe a great product should also educate users about the benefits of staying in touch with friends.
I have no doubt that staying in touch with people only gets harder when you get older. There’s only so much inertia that a previously strong friendship can carry — constant work and touchpoints are needed for our friendships to flourish in the long run. I’m really optimistic about a tech startup that will make us better at staying in touch with our friends. Because if done right it can be an incredibly impactful product that will help many people.
If you have thoughts on any of this, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or message me on Twitter (@yangayc15)!