'Tinder for BFFs' app makes more sense than you'd think

Find the Thelma to your Louise.

Hey Vina

For most of my adult life, I've had trouble making friends. As a shy, introverted person, I don't go out often, and when I do, it's hard for me to talk to people. What do I say? How do I jump into conversations? After many failed attempts, I became increasingly self-conscious, developing deep-seated social anxiety and a fear of rejection. As a result, most of my friendships are cultivated through the internet, where the usual social barriers don't apply. Over the years, I've gotten better at relating to people in real life, but I still struggle occasionally. So when I heard about a friendship app, I was intrigued. Could this be the solution to my woes?

The app is called Hey! Vina, and it's basically Tinder for making friends. I had heard about it from my improv classmate Ali (I had started taking improv classes to help me socialize more) and she said she used it to meet new people when she moved to the Bay Area a few months ago. "I didn't know anyone here and I've never lived in a suburb," she said. "There aren't a lot of opportunities to socialize in Walnut Creek." Before long, though, she did meet someone who turned out to be a pretty good friend. "We both went into it looking for the same thing: friendship. I think that's why it worked."

Hey! Vina has been around since January of last year, but didn't launch globally until last September. You do need to use Facebook to register, mostly to see if it can find matches based on mutual friends or other commonalities, but it's free to join. Similar to some dating apps out there, you start out by filling out your profile with some basic information about yourself and as much detail as you want. In Hey! Vina, you're encouraged to be honest about your personality. You can say whether you're an introvert, an ambivert or an extrovert, whether you're an indoor or an outdoor person, whether you prefer coffee or wine, and so forth. There's a series of prompts asking fun things like, "What's your guilty pleasure?" or "Describe yourself in emojis." If you like, you can also take personality quizzes to help flesh out your profile even further.

There is a catch, though. Hey! Vina is only for women (it makes sure men aren't trying to sneak on by using Facebook for registration). "Part of that is so that it doesn't turn into a dating app," said Olivia Poole, one of the founders of Hey! Vina. "When you put men and women onto a platform to meet, it can very easily and organically turn into a dating app, just based on human nature." That's not to say that men and women can't be friends -- of course, they can -- but it's just more complicated. Poole wanted Hey! Vina to be a safe space where women can feel comfortable being themselves. And Poole, who has a background in social psychology, says that men and women traditionally make friends very differently. Men typically bond through shared activities, while women bond mostly through emotional and intellectual disclosure, which is what Hey! Vina attempts to facilitate.

This was interesting to me on several levels. Maybe it's because of my interests as a child or that I work in a male-dominated industry, but most of my friends are men. My best friend at this point in time is a man (he also lives over 5,000 miles away, which is a separate issue). I have just a handful of female friends, most of whom have either moved away or simply graduated to a different chapter of their lives. In fact, maybe it's because of the bullying I suffered in high school, but female friendships have always eluded me. The Sex & the City idea of a girls' night out is completely foreign to me. As a result, Hey! Vina scared me.

At the same time, I've always envious of close female friendships. I didn't have a bachelorette party before my wedding (because I have no female besties) and I feel like I missed out. Having a girlfriend you could just call or text and talk over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine seemed nice. Importantly, too, having someone who could discuss and connect over uniquely female problems regarding health, sex and relationships seemed like a real benefit. I don't know if I've ever really had that in my life. Really, I've always just wanted to find the Jane Lane to my Daria Morgendorffer.

So, a few weeks ago, I took the plunge and signed up for Hey! Vina. I hemmed and hawed over what I would write in my profile, but decided to just be honest. I gave a brief description of my interests (comedy, food, board games, baseball) and my overall personality (nerdy with a snarky sense of humor). Then I looked over other Hey! Vina profiles to see who I would swipe right on. According to Poole, the profiles I see are based on an algorithm that matches my age, location, quiz results and "some special Vina magic."

I'm actually not too picky about the kinds of people I'm friends with -- I don't really care if we're total opposites or interested in totally different things -- so I ended up swiping right on most people. The only ones for whom I swiped left were profiles that were mostly blank or those that struck me as pretentious.

Like Tinder, Hey! Vina matches you only with people who swipe right on you too. For the first eight or so hours, I didn't have any matches and I started to feel a wave of rejection wash over me. Did I write something wrong? Should I edit my profile? Does my photo look weird? So I went back and tinkered with it, updating my photo with a more recent image and filling in my profile with more details. I still don't know if that helped, but within a day, I received four "Dittos" (that's Hey! Vina's term for matches).

Excited but also nervous, I responded to all of them with a "Hi!" and a hand-wave emoji. None responded. So I followed up with a simple "Hey, do you want to grab coffee?" Still nothing. Deflated, I went on with my day, wondering if this thing was a waste of time. A few hours later, though, I received a response from someone. She said she would be interested in a coffee date. But after a few back and forth messages, we couldn't agree on a time and place and the conversation died. From what friends tell me, this experience is typical of online dating too: Even if you find a match, it might not go anywhere.

The next day, I received another Ditto from someone (she said she wanted to stay anonymous, so let's call her Jane). She greeted me first, saying she liked that I was honest in my profile about being an introvert. "Introvert pride :)" she texted. She also liked that I was into board games -- something I'm pretty passionate about. Before long, we were texting back and forth about our favorite games, what we did for a living and what we did in our spare time. The conversation flowed easily. She seemed nice. So I thought, let's meet up and see how this works out.

It took a week or so to schedule something due to our busy jobs, but we eventually settled on a lunch date in downtown San Francisco. As I rushed to meet her, I felt nervous. What if I say something stupid? What if she thinks I'm weird? What if I trip and fall on my face?

I approached our meeting point, and I saw her already waiting. I waved hello, and as soon as she recognized me, she waved back. We ordered our salads and sat in a public park to chat. Somehow, whatever anxiety I was feeling melted away. Because we had already chatted on the phone, I found it easy to talk to her. We talked about everything, from our jobs to more existential societal struggles. We also each shared our experiences on how hard it is to make friends as adults, especially with busy schedules. I liked talking to her. Time just flew by.

Poole was inspired to start Hey! Vina when she moved to San Francisco a few years ago. "I've always been a very social and connected person, but when I moved here for my career, I lost that," she said. "I found it very hard to meet new people." The internet wasn't that much of a help, either, she said, because of the decline of old-school social networking like MySpace and Friendster. "There was this new era of social media like Facebook, where it's more about maintaining existing relationships instead of making new ones."

She tried to make friends through OK Cupid, but because the site is predominantly designed for dating, she had a lot of rejections, though she did make a few female friends here and there. Inspired by the need for more social gatherings for women, she and a girlfriend started a monthly "Ladies Who Vino" social event, where women from all over the city are invited to gather, drink wine and socialize. They invited all the women they knew and had about 60 attendees at the first event. The next time they had it, there were 100 women. The third time, even more turned up. The event became increasingly popular. They were onto something, Poole thought, so she decided to turn to technology and scale out the idea as an app.

"Part of the difficulty around making friends as adults is that you fall out of practice," said Miriam Kirmayer, a Ph.D. candidate at McGill University in Montreal who specializes in emerging adult friendships. "When we're younger, there are playdates, and it's easy to access a social network of people who are the same age as us or who might have similar interests. But once you leave school, and even through university to some extent, established friendship networks tend to be uprooted and disrupted. It's hard to find people with whom you connect."

One way to get around this is to simply go out more and meet new people, Kirmayer says, but that's easier said than done. An app like Hey! Vina can help. Plus, it's not the only friendship app out there. Tinder Social is a way for groups of friends to get together be they male or female, Bumble has a BFF mode that matches you with friends instead of potential mates, Atleto is an app that helps you find a workout buddy and there are many more. "Apps or sites like Meetup can really facilitate things and help people connect," said Kirmayer. "Similarity is often the root of friendship, so finding people with similar interests can definitely help."

When my lunch date with Jane drew to a close, we exchanged phone numbers and promised to connect on Facebook. As we stood up to leave, I asked her "Do you hug?" She smiled and said yes, and we embraced. I waved to her as I walked away. On my way back to the office, there was a slight spring in my step.