Loneliness In Tech: Nothing Beats Vulnerability, Even If It’s Tech Generated

This is the final article in a three-part series series on how loneliness impacts all aspects of the startup world, from founders to the technology that creates and combats the condition.

Editor’s note: Changes have been made to reflect Ilona Sturm and her experiences more accurately.

Sometimes Ilona Sturm just wants to grab a beer and hang out. But ironically, the older she’s gotten, the harder it is for the 57-year old Berkeley artist to make plans with other people.

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One of her friends prefers to stay in and watch TV alone while another one has a significant other so she only makes time for date nights.

So, when Sturm is in the mood for a casual beer, she goes alone to Acme Bar or Albatross and brings her drawing pad along. For a writer and artist, she says, “it is critical to enjoy being alone.”

“I’m 57, but I still think like a 30 year old,” Sturm said on a recent morning over the phone. “God help the folks that are not artists and don’t have the inner resources to [be alone].”

Sturm embodies what we’ve seen as we’ve delved into this topic for our Loneliness In Tech Series: first, that loneliness is a feeling to be managed, not necessarily combatted. Second, that in order to better understand isolation, we need to be open to being vulnerable and not confuse likes with affirmation and conversation.

Ilona Sturm on her travels.

However, although she’s following these rules, Sturm still struggles to have genuine interactions on a whim.

This leads us to our final topic for the series: Tech stepping in to make face-to-face interactions more human.

Face To Face

For some startups, there’s a business opportunity in charging people to meet other people. After all, the addressable market of lonely individuals is quite high.

Revel, for example, is a platform that connects women over the age of 50 for social events. It was part of the most recent Y Combinator batch, and it was started by Lisa Marrone and Alexa Wahr. Revel membership is currently free for inaugural members, but Marrone said members will eventually join for a $15 a month subscription.

Marrone, on stage at Y Combinator, said there are 50 million women over 50 in the United States alone. She added that these women have time, money, and energy to spend but nowhere to go.

“It’s all about meeting each other in the real world, because we know that that’s how people of all ages form the strongest connections,” said Wahr. She added that all of her the organized gatherings are 10 women or less to keep them intimate.

As for events available, think decluttering workshops, printmaking workshops, a picnic by Lake Merritt, or, in Sturm’s case, a tour at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco.

Using Revel’s platform, Sturm hosted a tour at the museum on a recent Monday and four people showed up, including herself. The platform has been live in the Bay area for a month.

Other startups in this category include MyScoot, also a Y Combinator startup, which lets hosts throw parties and charge for attendance, and of course MeetUp, which was bought by WeWork in 2017 for $200 million.

But friendship requires more than just showing up, it means being genuine once you get there.

“If you are older and you go to a random meetup that isn’t super focused… that’s the kind of vulnerability that will not pay off,” said Sturm.

Inner Self

Taking a step back, in order for a community to be vulnerable, might come down to individual mindfulness to set the tone.

Monaru is a startup which sports the tagline “we make being thoughtful easy.” It’s defined as a “virtual relationship assistant” and helps users stay in touch with friends and families.

On the company’s website, it says that we’re all disconnected. “Constant availability gives the illusion of connection. Online shopping, on-demand streaming, and working from home all corrode opportunities for human interaction,” the website reads.

To join, users complete a 15 minute “onboarding chat” where the company learns about you and important relationships in your life. Then you pick how much time you want to invest in those relationships every day, week, and month. The assistant sends reminders such as call home regularly, chat with a friend even if there’s a time difference, and plan a birthday gift in advance. It charges $20 dollars a month, according to its website.

There’s also Flipd that encourages “digital wellness” by having users spend more time away from their phones. Users can track the progress of phone usage while studying, sleeping, or working, said Alanna Harvey, the co-founder and CEO of the startup.

Flipd has also started partnering with wellness content creators to host music, sleep stories, and meditation. Other startups that help with the latter category include Calm, Headspace, and Wave.

Harvey thinks Flipd can help with loneliness.

“When you’re constantly reminded that everyone on the internet is living their best lives and you’re at home scrolling on the couch, the best thing you can do for yourself is to get off your phone and engage your mind and body in another activity,” she said.

A Mix Of Both

Serena Bian, a community manager with First Round Capital, thinks both in-person interaction and mindfulness apps aren’t the perfect solution. Yet.

While at the University of Pennsylvania, Bian started hosting gatherings for strangers to meet each other in three hour blocks. The time period was key: “I think you need at least three hours for people to physically feel away, and create the energy of an alternate environment.”

While Bian thinks startups like Meetup and Revel are helpful, she also said they aren’t a “comprehensive enough solution for building a socially connected future.”

“These companies do an amazing job for creating opportunities for connection, but what’s lacking is having real connection be a value.” Part of the reason, Bian said, is rooted in American culture.

We need a “value system that is about connecting and have connection be a value,” she said.

In her observation, community leaders should be responsible for facilitating that value.

“If we’re talking tactically, [it’s about] the lighting, the mood, the sound, and the ambiance when you first step in the room,” Bian said. The first 10 minutes sets the tone for how the conversation should go.

Circling back to Sturm. She’s been thinking of moving to Europe for the more casual culture. Until that day, however, she’s optimistic.

“Loneliness is one way of interpreting an empty feeling,” Sturm said. “But that empty feeling can also be turned into something that is very meaningful, if we don’t stop at the initial feeling of it.”

Featured image by Dom Guzman.

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