During the coronavirus pandemic, design executive Trip O’Dell says he’s connected with dozens of new people. It’s not that he’s been dodging the need to quarantine. Instead, O’Dell has been connecting through video chats arranged by a startup called Lunchclub that pairs people with common interests for serendipitous conversations.
“There’s an element of meeting that really interesting person on a cross-country flight that you just end up talking the whole time,” he says. Through the service, he’s connected with venture capitalists, making connections for a startup he advises, and even lined up a speaking engagement after discussing his own experiences with dyslexia and his work in accessible design.
Lunchclub and apps like it have come to fill a void during a time when business conferences, local meetups, and social outings of all kinds have gone to Zoom—or just gone away. These digital tools connect users via shared interests and a dose of randomness by putting two strangers on a video call where hopefully they hit it off. Some, like Lunchclub, focus more on connecting for business purposes, while other services connect people to discuss hobbies and other shared interests. These services have effectively stepped in to fill a pandemic-era void, in which the types of serendipitous encounters that drive people to move to big cities and attend conferences and conventions have been strictly limited for virus safety reasons.
Lunchclub, which uses machine learning to match members with others who share their interests, didn’t originate during the coronavirus era. It got its start about three years ago primarily connecting people for actual in-person lunches and meetings. Cofounder and CEO Vladimir Novakovski says that the platform’s creators had realized that traditional social networks don’t really facilitate new connections—rather, they’re built around existing ones.
About a year ago, with the spread of the virus, the company successfully switched from in-person meetings to video calls. “Last year, we grew across the board very significantly,” Novakovski says, explaining that the professionally focused network saw a rise in new members who work in entertainment, biotech, and other industries.
Novakovski says users range from young students to senior executives; members are asked to specify their interests and a bit about what they do when they sign up. Members also list goals like “explore new projects” or “brainstorm with peers,” and connect sites like LinkedIn and Twitter to provide data for better matchmaking.
“Everyone has long-term goals, and we understand what those are and ask about them on registration,” he says. “At the end of the day, people understand the way they’re going to achieve them is through building their network with relevant people who have mutual interests and mutual values around the same place in their career.”
The platform is currently free, but Novakovski says he envisions that in the future Lunchclub could license its technology to anyone looking to connect like-minded people, whether that means wedding planners or conference organizers. Already, he says, the company’s algorithms have learned that interest in certain topics, like cryptocurrency tech, can be a particularly good indicator of who is and is not a good conversational match.
“Matching someone who is into crypto and someone who isn’t never works well for either side,” he says. “The crypto person is like, ‘I want to talk to someone who understands the decentralized future,’ and the non-crypto person would say something like, ‘No more Bitcoin bros, please.'”
Shapr, another networking app, lets people swipe through up to 15 potential matches per day, similar to dating services like Tinder and Bumble but with a focus on business connections. Cofounder and COO Paul Munos says the Paris-based company has also seen people shift their meetings from in-person coffee hours to online calls during the pandemic. Many of Shapr’s users, who are mostly based in the U.S. and Canada, work in the tech industry and are often searching for work opportunities or business partners.
“Our users, if I would define them, are mainly early adopters,” he says.
Other platforms aren’t as strictly oriented around business. Dialup, which also launched in pre-pandemic times, is one example, built around connecting people for one-on-one audio calls. The app lets users sign up to be paired with a partner for scheduled calls on topics like parenting, podcasts, poetry, or even tarot card reading. When countries started to lock down for the pandemic, Dialup created a tool called Quarantine Chat that matches people for completely randomized calls—at random times.
“I thought that would be like a two-week-long thing,” recalls CEO Danielle Baskin. “It’s been ongoing for over a year.”
About 12,000 people have used Quarantine Chat, she says, and the themed chat sessions have continued as well. People can choose to remain anonymous if they wish (“You can talk for two hours but not actually know [the other person’s] last name, and that’s very freeing,” Baskin says) or pass along information to stay in touch with mutual agreement. Some users have connected and begun collaborating on creative projects, like a pair working on a screenplay. Others have developed mentoring relationships. Some, Baskin says, according to customer feedback, have discussed more niche interests.
“I just get all these glimpses, like ‘I learned about caving in Virginia,’ or someone will say, ‘I talked to someone in Cameroon and learned a cold remedy with ginger.’ We just get so many fragments of what people are out and about doing around the world—it’s really incredible,” she says.
Moderating the conversation
These sorts of randomized chat apps differ from previous tools, such as Omegle and Chatroulette, that typically offered instantaneous matchmaking but developed a reputation for people exposing themselves and otherwise pursuing shock or gross-out value. Unlike the last generation of tools, these newer apps generally provide mechanisms for people to report any kind of abusive behavior and, in some cases, strictly vet people to verify users’ identities.
“We need to have some sort of strong sense of identity on the network, so we’re having to manually approve everyone’s applications,” says Isaac Joy, creator of ChitterChat, which launched in March. At the moment, the service matches people with one random fellow user each week (“There’s a lot to be said for speaking to people from different backgrounds,” Joy says) but each person who signs up is reviewed based on social media to verify they are who they claim to be before they’re able to participate.
Vetting helps reduce overt harassment and keeps the quality of the conversations relatively high, say site operators and users.
“You don’t want to go to a meeting and be surprised by a time-share pitch,” says Lunchclub user O’Dell.
As people begin to get vaccinated and return to in-person meetings, the people behind these apps believe they’re unlikely to go away. Some, like Lunchclub and Shapr, might begin to pivot back toward facilitating in-person conversations when people are in the same city. But Dialup’s Baskin says that she anticipates people will now be less wary of connecting with others online after a year dominated by Slack conversations, Zoom meetings, and family FaceTime sessions.
“There used to be a fear of phone calls and a fear of virtual communication, and I think people are just sort of used to it,” she says. “After the pandemic, people will be much better conversationalists with someone they don’t know on the internet. That’s what I hope.”