Over fish and chips at an Irish pub in Louisville, Kentucky, Allyson Tracey and Lindsay Russell tell me how much they love “Grease 2.”
That’s the sequel they’re talking about, not the teen flick that helped turn John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John into household names. The 1982 follow-up had a young Michelle Pfeiffer singing in a Pink Ladies jacket and a mystery man on a motorcycle. Tracey and Russell can’t get enough of it, which goes a long way to explaining why they’re friends.
“‘Grease 2’ is by far the superior ‘Grease’ because of Stephanie Zinone,” the character played by Pfeiffer, says Russell, a 29-year-old structural engineer with long dark brown hair. She appreciates the character being a popular girl who doesn’t tear other girls down and who bucks gender roles. “There’s a lot of girl power in that movie,” adds Tracey, who is 28, blonde and works as a library assistant.
Questionably successful early ’80s musicals are some of the many bonding points Tracey and Russell found when they met using Bumble BFF in May 2016. Since they matched, they’ve barely stopped talking.
If you don’t know, Bumble BFF is a part of mobile dating app Bumble that lets women look for women friends like you’d look for a date — read profiles, swipe, match and chat. In an age in which we rely on our phones for just about everything, it’s not surprising people would go looking for friendship online as well. And for more and more people like Russell and Tracey, finding a new, platonic best friend on an app wasn’t an odd strategy. After all, we’ve gotten used to swiping or scrolling through apps like Tinder and Match looking for some human connection. Or whatever. (No judgment.)
“It didn’t seem that weird to me,” Russell says of Tracey, from her side of the wooden booth in the warmly lit bar. “We were in a public place, so if she turned out to be a creepy 40-year-old man, I could have left.”
They’re now at each other’s houses all the time trading opinions about clothes, backpacks and even more movies. Over my dinner meeting with them in January 2017, they can’t agree on how quickly in their friendship they started gushing over “Wayne’s World.”
Bumble BFF is one of many new apps that might have been designed for Galentine’s Day, the fictional holiday that “Parks and Recreation” character Leslie Knope created to be celebrated as a girls-only brunch on Feb. 13 and which she describes as “ladies celebrating ladies.” Tracey and Russell know that it’s easy to lose friends when you move to a new place or change jobs and that you’ve got to keep building your friend group. That’s where the apps come in.
In addition to Bumble BFF, there’s Present, which focuses on groups of women, and Hey! Vina, which also employs swiping and matching. All of them are designed to let women assemble their own girls’ squad.
Swiping your way to friendship
When Olivia June moved to San Francisco from Southern California eight years ago, she’d started using dating website OkCupid just to get out of the house. In the process, she ran across the profiles of women who sounded like good friend material.
“The problem was that we were on a dating site and it was super awkward for me to message them,” June recalls. She messaged a few of them anyway. Some weren’t game for meeting up, but others told her they’d wanted to do the same thing but never had.
Fast-forward a few years and June realized she should turn the hunt for friends into an app. Hey! Vina launched in 2016.
Just like dating apps I’ve tried, Hey! Vina asks you to fill out a short bio and enter information like whether you’re more of a night owl or daytime person, an introvert or an extrovert. You can also take quizzes designed to reveal more about you as a person.
My friendship language is apparently “quality time” and my aura is “red and confident.”
Looking through different profiles, I found that women were pretty straightforward about their intentions. One lamented about being away from her friends from back home. Others moved to town for a significant other or a job. A few were Louisville natives trying to expand their friendship circles.
Hey! Vina also lets you join communities based on interests and lifestyle, like Jetsetters, Yogis, Lit Lovers, and those New in Town. When you match, you actually get an automated introduction from June basically saying: “Hey, you guys matched, so go play.”
As an aside, I tried to go on a friend date myself using one of these apps, but sadly, telling them I was a reporter working on a story seemed to keep folks away. I guess no one likes a Lois Lane.
Why can’t we be friends?
Making friends later in life is a challenge everyone goes through. At a certain point, you’re just out of the potential friend pools you might have had, like classmates or kids from summer camp.
While women and men need friends, the makers of these apps often decide it’s a more clear-cut path to focus on female friendship and leave any complications of potential romance out of the equation.
June says she’s been able to build the app to cater to what she’s learned about the way women make friends with each other. Hey! Vina is meant more to facilitate storytelling and personal disclosure than activity-based meetups.
“With girls and women, it’s often talk about personal things. It’s establishing ways that they’re similar,” said Deborah Tannen, professor at Georgetown University and author of the book “You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships.”
June and Tannen acknowledge that there are always exceptions. You might be reading this story thinking that talking about your life over a glass of wine sounds terrible. It’s not for everyone.
But there are patterns we all tend fall into.
When studying children, Tannen’s seen how boys are more likely to engage in “parallel play,” maybe playing with toys alongside each other and eventually merging games. Little girls are more likely to approach each other directly. In other words, dudes are more likely to sit next to each other and do an activity like play video games and dudettes are more likely to sit across from each other and talk directly. (Toss in a brunch with mimosas as they get older, of course.)
Interestingly, this dynamic is also why June’s app is focused on women. In some ways, apps for doing stuff together are plentiful. There’s InfiniteHoops for finding pickup basketball games, We3 for meeting in groups of three, and even the classic Meetup for finding groups based on interests or activities. If you’re wondering why these apps don’t focus on matching men and women together just to “be friends,” I’d recommend you watch “When Harry Met Sally.”
Like June, Janete Perez also moved to the Bay Area about six years ago and didn’t have an easy time making friends. She and friend Bob Lee got to thinking about creating an app after another friend talked about wanting to start a fitness group in her neighborhood.
That led Perez and Lee to to build Present, an app for women looking to connect with other women in their area through shared interests. You can join a circle of women for anything from karaoke to Dungeons and Dragons. There’re also groups for women entrepreneurs and women in tech.
“The natural way we make friends is through interests and you connect around those interests,” Perez said.
Present, which went live 2017, is available in eight cities, including Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and St. Louis. More cities will follow as they gauge interest.
Back in that pub in Louisville, Russell tells me meeting through an app felt like as good a strategy as any. It wasn’t always successful. With one potential match, she got stood up at a concert. At another, she met up with someone who turned out to be “mega awkward.”
But, just like how dating apps don’t always deliver the perfect match, Russell and Tracey managed to find each other. They say that’s all that really matters.
Adds Tracey, turning toward Russell in the booth, “We’ve been friends for so long now that I forget that’s how we met.”
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