A woman drinking red wine surrounded by people
Stock Photo: annabelle declement

Do Friend-Finding Platforms Actually Work?

Apps like TimeLeft are trying to beat loneliness by pairing strangers up as potential friends. I went down to see if it works.

I get to the restaurant a couple of minutes after seven. It’s tucked into the corner of Bloomsbury’s Brunswick Centre – at first I walk right past it and end up doing a loop of the shopping arcade. But I didn’t want to be bang on time anyway. I couldn’t risk being the first one there. When you’re meeting strangers for dinner, it’s better to arrive a couple of minutes late, armed with an excuse to get the conversation started.


This isn’t a first date, by the way. But the same kind of butterflies lurch around in my stomach, because I’m about to have dinner with five people I’ve never met before. I know almost nothing about them, except their star signs and the industries they work in. Even these scanty facts don’t help much though, because I don’t actually know who is a Pisces, or works in social media. I only know the table’s make-up in percentages: 33 percent Pisces, 17 percent Leo, 17 percent working in education etc. I’m meant to trust these stats add up to a good time, because we’ve been matched together by a specialist algorithm. But somehow, entering the restaurant, this thought makes me even more nervous. It’s as if, rather than matching on Hinge with someone I think is cute, I’ve been set up on a blind date with someone my friend insists I have loads in common with…

The dinner hasn’t been set up by a well-meaning pal. It’s been organised by TimeLeft – a social events platform and a new way of meeting people. The concept is simple: Sign up to a TimeLeft dinner, complete a short questionnaire, and its algorithm will match you with a group of strangers. Download the app and wait – you’ll find out where you’re dining a couple of hours beforehand. TimeLeft’s concept might be simple, but the issues it hopes to help combat – loneliness and social isolation – are anything but. Nearly one in four adults across the world feel very or fairly lonely, according to a 2023 Meta-Gallup report. 24 Concerningly, the highest rates of loneliness were found in young adults, with 27 per cent of 19 to 29 year olds feeling very or fairly lonely. It’s hardly surprising researchers claim we’re living through a “loneliness epidemic”.


TimeLeft is part of a wave of anti-loneliness clubs, apps and community groups that have popped up recently. You’ve probably seen them advertised on social media: There’s California’s Groundfloor club, an “after-school club” for the over 30s, The Lonely Girls Club, which runs events in London and Manchester, and the simply-titled Meetup. It makes sense: Offering your social life up to an algorithm might feel less horrendously excruciating than trying to make friends organically. But behind the upbeat ad campaigns, I’m interested in whether these meet-ups actually work. Which is how I find myself filling in an online personality test, full of questions like “Are your opinions usually guided by logic and facts, or emotions and feelings?” The answers I give will determine who I spend a night with, playing icebreaker games and unlocking meaningful connections. What could possibly go wrong?

“This app has been advertised to me on Instagram,” my friend Emily says, when I WhatsApp her about my Wednesday night plans. “I thought it was ‘Time Left’ as in a reference to my fertility, so this has really cheered me up.” I’m not sure how cheerful I feel though, as I sit down at the table, next to two people staring at their menus in silence. This could be a long evening, especially as I’m not drinking. I launch into some upbeat small talk, and find out one of my companions isn’t drinking either. “I’m very athletic,” he says by way of explanation. Before I can ask any further questions, two more people arrive. TimeLeft’s personality test asked about introversion versus extroversion, and it’s immediately clear these two are the extroverted side of the table. After the initial awkwardness, one of the women takes the conversational reins and launches into a grilling. “Why did you all sign up for this then?” she asks, taking gulps from a large glass of red.


All my friends have children,” the woman across from me says. “I love spending time with them, but I just wanted to get dressed up, go for a nice dinner, and not have to socialise while watching Paw Patrol” – an excellent reason to try a social meetup scheme (which I have to remind myself to stop calling an “experiment”, as if we’re lab rats). “That’s the same as me,” exclaims the woman who asked the question, who I’ll call “Cat”. She’s 37, and says her friendship group has “settled down with kids”. Cat’s not sure if she wants children: “Also, I recently broke up with my partner,” she adds.

We haven’t even ordered food yet, and already the conversation is going deeper than I expected. Cat dives in with another question: “Do you want kids?” “I got my eggs frozen actually,” one woman replies. Maybe it says more about me, but I find myself inwardly recoiling from all the chat about fertility and body clocks – it all feels too intimate to talk about with total strangers. I make a mental note to tell Emily her initial suspicions about TimeLeft weren’t entirely wrong.

“I signed up because I do something every other night of the week,” the only guy at the table announces. “On Monday I do salsa, Tuesday I do jui jitsu, Thursday salsa, Friday salsa. At the weekend, jiu-jitsu.” This is the kind of utterly insane week schedule I was hoping to come across; it makes having dinner with five randoms feel normal in comparison.


Cat admits she had a couple of tequila shots on the way here, and fires off another question: “How’s your love life?” “I do have a boyfriend but he’s gone AWOL,” the woman across from me replies, surprisingly calmly. “He’s either in Ireland or Australia.” I take a sip of my no-groni, then excuse myself to the bathroom. This is a “memorable culinary experience”, alright.

The TimeLeft dinner wasn’t quite a hit for me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think social meet-ups of this kind can’t work. If anything, the fact this one was tepid on the “meaningful connections” stakes, makes me want to try out other kinds of meet-ups even more. Intrusive questions aren’t my cup of tea, but a walk, picnic, or  movie night might be. This is the approach of another social meetup community: The Lonely Girls Club.

Holly Cooke started The Lonely Girls Club five years ago. “I moved to London as a graduate,” Cooke tells VICE. “I was 22, and I didn't know anyone. I realised pretty quickly that although this city is absolutely incredible, it can be really lonely.” There were so many things she wanted to do, and so many places she wanted to visit, but she didn’t want to do everything solo. “The only thing that really existed was Bumble BFF, which is cool, but wasn't really for me,” she says. “The thought of hanging out with someone one on one was really scary.” But Cooke had an idea: “What if you could get four, five, six people together?”


Cooke made a Facebook group, and told “maybe maybe 10 or 20 people” she’d spoken to on Bumble BFF about it. “You can text and be in a WhatsApp group until the cows come home, but meeting someone in person is very different than having a digital pen pal,” Cooke says. “You may live five minutes down the road, but you've both been too nervous to meet in person, which is really what I think most people are looking for.”

In a very short space of time, Cooke was proved right. Now the Facebook community has over 60,000 members, spanning the gamut from 22-year-olds who just moved to London to divorcees and retirees in their 60s and 70s. “A lot of the time with our community members, they've got friends,” Cooke explains. “Their friends just don't live near them, or they’re at a different stage of their life.” She echos the reasoning of my TimeLeft table-mates: “[If] you want someone to call when you've had a bad day and you want to go for a drink, or you've had an amazing day and you want people to celebrate with, those people need to be near you rather than five hours away.”

What Lonely Girls Club offers is spontaneity. From the start, Cooke says their basic tagline has been “if you see a gig you want to go to, a coffee shop you want to go to, and you don't want to on your own, post it in the group”. “Yesterday we had a girl who was meant to go to the theatre with her friend,” Cooke says. “When he was ill, she posted in the group, offering this ticket for free. And she got about five comments within five minutes.”


The night before I speak to Cooke, The Lonely Girls Club ran a fitness class. In the past, it’s put on candle-making workshops, book swaps, pizza nights and friendship speed dating events. “We like to have that variety, because we've got so many different community members at different stages in their life,” Cooke adds. “Half the girls had never done a spin class before – they’d always wanted to do one, but were a bit too scared to go on their own, or didn't want to be the only beginner, so they came with us because they knew that most people would be there solo.” 

On one level, the fact that so many people at every stage of life are feeling lonely, or at least in need of more social connections, is troubling. Cooke has a more optimistic spin on things. “Conversations around loneliness, and around friendship are much more common than they were five years ago,” she argues. ‘Having the confidence to say, ‘Oh, I'm a bit lonely’ is still scary, but it should be slightly less than it was.”

So, do anti-loneliness platforms like TimeLeft and The Lonely Girls Club work? It’s certainly hard to argue with their success and popularity thus far. After launching in Portugal, TimeLeft now operates in 43 European cities. And, as of the 24th January, London and Manchester are on that list. Similarly, the proof The Lonely Girls Club works is in its 60,000-strong community. “We've got girls that have been on holiday together, girls that are housemates, girls that have made their best friends through the Facebook group,” Cooke says.

This isn’t her only measure of success. “Hinge used to have the tagline “the app to be deleted”,” she says. “I used to joke that we want to be the group that people can leave, because they don't need us anymore.” Women will come to three or four events over a couple of months, and then they’ll vanish from the group, “because they’ve had enough opportunities to meet people and make their own connections”, Cooke smiles. 

This is, of course, the hardest part – making the leap and trying to become genuine friends, or as Cooke puts it, “pushing through the terror barrier” of messaging someone to say “good to meet you, wanna hang out?” In the end though, that really is the only way to combat loneliness: Putting embarrassment and nervousness to one side, and trying to connect. “The number one thing people always say,” she tells me, “is, ‘Oh, my gosh, I didn't realise anybody else found it hard to make friends’.”