Forget Tinder, use an app to find a lunch kaki instead

Looking for someone to dine with? Apps can connect you with like-minded people in close proximity immediately

Meetup.com is too slow. Tinder comes with too much negative baggage.

Enter a clutch of friendship-seeking and community-building apps - Sup, Lunch Kaki, Wander and Motivatormob - for bored or lonely young adults not looking for romantic entanglements.

Ms Jen Wei Qing, the 35-year-old co-founder of Sup, says: "We're used to everything being on demand so there is no reason why friendships could not be more portable as well. Because the app recommends events to you and connects you to the right people to go with, it acts very much like an Uber for friendship."

No matter the hundreds of friends millennials might have on their social media platforms, they probably interact regularly only with the same close handful of people - frequenting the same places with the same people and talking about the same things a few too many times.

For many young adults who have grown up on the immediacy of social connection on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, this real- world friendship gap can be disconcerting.

No surprises then that friendship has become the newest area to go mobile.

We're used to everything being on demand so there is no reason why friendships could not be more portable as well.
MS JEN WEI QING, co-founder of Sup, a friendship app

Free from the slower response time of traditional community portals such as Meetup.com and the many negative stereotypes that plague dating apps such as Tinder, this new generation of social apps is catered to efficiently connecting like-minded people - no matter one's age, gender or relationship status (although the founders acknowledge that users may go from being platonic friends to romantic partners).

In Singapore, there are at least three such apps that have recently launched.

For Ms Jen, the irony of being unable to translate digital connections into real-life interaction spurred her to launch Sup - which she calls "Tinder for social life" - with her Harvard University schoolmate in January this year.

Sup - short for "What's up" - helps to connect users to friends who are nearby and available immediately for an activity.

The app makes these connections by mining relevant information such as geographical location, interests and mutual connections from users' Facebook profile and contact list and running it through a proprietary algorithm.

Over time, the algorithm learns from user behaviours so suggestions become more relevant the more you use the app. 

The response time to a user's activity request? Typically within 30 minutes, says Ms Jen.

This immediacy of connection is also a huge selling point of local social networking app Lunch Kaki, designed to help people connect and socialise over lunch.

Founded by Mr Melvin Tan, 35, the app launched in November 2014 and currently has more than 20,000 registered users who are mainly working in professional fields such as finance and engineering.

For the ex-stockbroker, the idea came about during a period when he was unemployed for seven months.

"During that time, I realised that it would be helpful to have a way to meet new people and casually network with people in my industry," he says. "Plus, my wife who worked in the city would also mention how she did not like to dine alone, which made me realise there was potential for an app like Lunch Kaki."

This desire to connect like- minded individuals for platonic friendship is why he says he has made the conscious effort to not market the app as one that promotes romance.

"Dating apps are an easy way to quickly meet people, but users come with their own set of expectations and the apps exclude people who are in committed relationships but might just be looking to widen their social circle."

People using Lunch Kaki filter their lunch requests by location, interests, industry, gender and age and can use the last-minute-eats function to find a lunch buddy within 10 minutes.

For Ms Hazel Kweh, 31, who started using Lunch Kaki at the end of last year, the efficiency and ease of using the app is a big draw.

"As I work from home, the app gives me a chance to connect with other working professionals in entrepreneurship who I would not have had a chance to meet otherwise," says the singleton, who runs an e-commerce start-up.

"I use it up to three times a week and have met lots of interesting people - many of whom are married and in relationships - who are just looking to make new friends. In fact, many of these people have become friends."

The chance to interact with strangers who share similar interests is also what draws more users to friendship apps.

Ms Huang Xuemin, 29, used women's-only app Hey! Vina while on her maiden solo trip to Sydney last year and connected with a fellow music lover over brunch.

She says of the experience: "The app isn't available in Singapore yet, but many of my friends in Australia recommended it to me as a way to meet locals. Because it's only for women, I found it really safe. In the end, I made a good friend whom I am still in touch with today."

Similarly, local community- building apps such as Wander and Motivatormob capitalise on commonalities between strangers to help people turn digital connections into offline friendships.

Wander, which launched this week, allows users to set up group chats and discuss anything from their favourite brunch spots to PokemonGo.

Local app Motivatormob, which is looking to launch by January, focuses on the social aspect of fitness. Its users can find and join workout groups across the island based on filters such as geographical area, time and type of activity. Both free activities and paid activities will be available on the free app.

Its co-founder Tom Bennett, 40, a Singapore permanent resident, says: "We found that people often feel more motivated and connected when they are part of a community. So even though our app is focused on fitness, it is also very much about strangers translating online connections to real relationships in the offline world."


Hi there, stranger

Technology entrepreneur Krystal Choo  believes that people are lonely and the social space is broken.

So last month, she started building Wander to connect strangers with common ground.

The app - which launched this week - operates like a group messenger for strangers, allowing people to start discussions and build communities with others who have shared interests. It is for the fostering of platonic friendships.

Ms Choo, 28, says: "These days people type more than they talk, but they are either broadcasting information in a bid for validation or are stuck in silos and connecting only with a small handful of close friends and co-workers."

Originally intended for singles, it has become a friendship-focused portal open to anyone, as long as you want to connect over an area of interest.

Once users have logged in with their Facebook or e-mail accounts, they can choose to join a conversation that falls under various existing topics.

If they cannot find what they are looking for, they can set up their own topics of interest or filter using keywords to find profiles similar to theirs.

"It allows people to stick to using their phones, which is what they are comfortable with, but affords them immediacy in replies and a chance to expand and connect to social circles that might not be available to them daily," says Ms Choo, who is single.

She hopes that the chance the app offers to have genuine conversations with like-minded people will draw users.

"Everyone still treasures the sense of identity and belonging they feel when they are in the midst of a community. No matter how many digital likes we get, friendship and human connection will always be key."


Japanese finds his kakis

For Mr Allan Tanekura, managing director of a Japanese event ticketing company, meeting Singaporeans has been a tricky prospect.

The Japanese citizen, who is the only staff of the Singapore branch of his company, does not have any colleagues to rely on to introduce him to new people.

Working in Raffles Place, he finds it hard to strike up conversations with strangers, most of whom are either in a rush to get back to the office or are already dining with friends of their own.

Since June this year, he has been able to count on Lunch Kaki to help him out on the friendship front. The app - which he uses two to three times a month - has helped him meet nearly 10 new people so far, many of whom he gets together with regularly.

The 31-year-old, who is married, says: "Since I moved to Singapore six years ago, I've found it quite hard to make new friends. Also, because I am married, I don't want to use dating apps to try and meet new people, so Lunch Kaki was a happy medium."

Using the app has even indirectly benefited his business. A friend he met through the app introduced Mr Tanekura to his partner, who became his client.

He says of his Lunch Kaki experience: "It's been a great way to not only meet new people, but also to exchange ideas with like-minded business people. Plus, because so many people on the app work in the city, there's a high chance that I can meet someone new regularly and at my convenience. It's a win-win situation."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 18, 2016, with the headline 'Swipe right for friendship'. Print Edition | Subscribe