When Michael Pinsky was a freshman at Princeton, he wandered into the campus center to watch the Yankees and found himself seated on a couch next to Vaidhy Murti. Today Pinsky and Murti, now both seniors in New Jersey, are best friends, roommates, and business partners: they are the co-founders of Friendsy, a mobile friendship app that is debuting on campus this month.
Pinsky and Murti’s chance encounter was one of the catalysts for the advent of Friendsy, which aims to help people connect to potential friends and romantic interests on their college campuses.
“We started talking, became super good friends, and…roommates who co-founded a company together,” Pinsky said. “But we realized that things generally don’t work that way. You have all these acquaintances on your campus, you meet new people all the time, and you say, ‘Let’s grab a meal sometime,’ but it never really happens. We wanted to give people a better way to branch out of their friend circles in a stress-free way.”
Friendsy, which on each campus is restricted to users with the pertinent .edu email address, places participants in a network that includes all registered users in that school. Users are shown photos of other students and a few details about each one (class year, department, hometown, and affiliations such as fraternities or varsity teams), and then they are invited to indicate a level of interest, ranging from friendly to romantic, in the offered person. If and only if both parties indicate the same level of interest is the match revealed, at which point Friendsy’s matchmaking work is done. Think WeScam, with potentially platonic options.
Pinsky and Murti launched Friendsy at Princeton in May 2013, successfully registering a quarter of campus. Last year, the Friendsy team introduced the app to six additional small schools (Dartmouth College, James Madison University, Macalester College, Carleton College, Hamilton College, and Bucknell University), garnering 10,000 total users and forging 150,000 connections. This year it will branch out to 50 other colleges, including Wesleyan.
The team, too, has grown from 3 to 12, including 8 technology-focused members and 3 outreach people; about half, Pinsky said, are Princeton students.
“You can make a friendship on Friendsy and have dinner that night,” Pinsky said. “It’s not like you have to wait or drive somewhere or anything like that. You can really start branching out instantly. So the goal is basically to make people feel more secure in branching out of their comfort zone socially.”
There’s no reason, Pinsky and Murti reasoned, that people should feel as though they have to hold back or shy away just because they’re not sure if the other person reciprocates their feelings. To combat this crippling fear of rejection, a crucial element of Friendsy’s design is that it is close to risk-free. Pinsky stressed that users have very little to lose by clicking “romantic” for even vague acquaintances, for example.
“If another person feels the same way, and clicks on the same button that you’ve clicked on for them, then it’s mutual and it gets revealed that you have a match,” Pinsky said. “Otherwise, everybody’s secrets are super safe. It’s sort of a win-win way of putting yourself out there.”
Though Friendsy assuages initial fears of rejection, it cannot—and neither attempts nor pretends to—eliminate normal trajectories of human relationships, many of which end in ways that are less than friendly; nor does it protect against unrequited, albeit secret, love.
“It’s totally fine to experience rejection, and experience heartbreak, or whatever,” Pinsky said. “Those are part of the human experience…. One of the great things about Friendsy is that it doesn’t take away the human aspect of it, the face-to-face. It’s just that very first step, where you’re a little bit nervous to put yourself out there. But then you can get over that, and once you match with someone on Friendsy…you can do whatever you want. You can meet for coffee that night; you can go to a movie; you can talk for hours. It’s just that first initial step that people can be really nervous about, and this could help people get over that.”
Pinsky, who went to an all-boys high school, has experienced that social nervousness; he himself uses Friendsy to make, as he calls them, “firsts,” many of which have later turned into lasting friendships. More importantly, though, the feedback he and his team have received from users has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We’ve been flooded with people telling us how much it’s meant to them,” he said. “Somebody wrote to us a couple months ago and said they’d found their soulmate through Friendsy. It was pretty amazing. What more could you really want from an app, you know?”
Testimonials like that one have led Pinsky to believe that its users will take Friendsy seriously in a way that many users of the similar app Tinder don’t—or at least don’t admit to doing.
“Especially with Friendsy, a lot of people who say they treat it as a joke actually don’t,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of people make very meaningful connections…it’s also perfectly fine if people want to use it as something to procrastinate with. But the goal is to make meaningful change…and we’ve heard that from people; we’ve seen the activity on the app.”
The fact that Friendsy is located in a closed network—the college campus—also forces users to think twice about treating the app as a joke. After all, the person in whom you have jokingly indicated romantic interest might be quite serious about his interest in you, and because you are students at the same university, your paths are bound to cross, probably the next morning at Usdan brunch. That right there, Pinsky says, is the crucial difference between Friendsy and Tinder.
“These relationships that you’re making on Friendsy are with actual people who are actually on your campus right there,” he said. “With Tinder, they’re strangers; you don’t know who they really are; they might not even be real. It’s easy to match with someone and hide in the shadows and never have anything to do with them again. With Friendsy, it’s on your campus; you’re going to see them. So I think it’s a lot more meaningful in that way.”