When I’m standing on a street corner with a craving for chow mein, I need the Yelp app.  I need to find a 3+ starred restaurant in the next 45 minutes, and an iPhone app excels in finding me a Chinese restaurant nearby.  Can the same process be used to find a friend?

The social media community today is obsessed with meeting people. Obsessed with “seeing who is around”  – on new apps like Highlight. And Glancee. And Banjo.  And Sonar.

Technology, for all the ways it has made us more connected, has also made us less connected to the people who are really around us.  The idea is now a cliche: we stare into iPhones instead of at the person we’re at dinner with;  we “LOL” and “OMG” over chat messages but then are completely awkward in real human interactions; we have 1200 “friends” on Facebook but have trouble recognizing them on the street.

The Highlights of the world want to change things – they want to leverage technology to enable and improve real world interactions.  They want you to connect to people – in person – and make friends.  They want to take the transformative power of mobile technology into the social realm.  It’s a worthy goal, but will it actually work?

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These apps look a lot like Yelp, with a bit more design sheen.  Ultimately, however, you are swiping through rows of people – dynamic, location-based personals.  Each row has data  on mutual friends and interests to help you evaluate if someone is a good fit for friendship – just like the stars and one-liners on Yelp.

The problem is this: if I’m hungry for chow mein, and if I don’t get it soon, I’m going to pass out or at least be extremely cranky.  I don’t need a friend right this second – that’s what FaceTime with my mother is for.  Furthermore, if I don’t like the chow mein, I can toss it in the garbage and go to Subway.  If I don’t like a random person I meet on an app, I’m stuck having an hourlong conversation which may well give me an aneurysm, or I have to be extremely rude.

The worst thing that can happen with the chow mein is that I lose $10 or have indigestion.  The worst thing that can happen with a random person I meet on an iPhone app is kidnapping or death.

The chow mein isn’t seeking me out, and that’s comforting.  Because if the chow mein was actively looking for someone to eat it, I’d worry that there was a reason it hasn’t already been consumed.  Sure, the owner of the restaurant actively hawked the dish by attaching his menu to every doorknob in the neighborhood, but for some reason this seems less desperate than having my iPhone vibrate in my pocket with a message from a complete stranger.

Finally, I need to find dinner on my iPhone every night (I don’t cook).  I need a new friend maybe once every six months.  I’ll eat mediocre chow mein because I’m hungry; with friends, I try to aim a little higher.

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There is one location based app which does well – Grindr, a gay men’s hookup app.  If you think about it, seeking out anonymous sex is a lot like seeking out chow mein, so this isn’t surprising.  There are no strings attached, it’s a carnal desire, and location and timing are very important.  Grindr released a straight person app called Blendr which doesn’t seem to be doing well… because the idea simply doesn’t translate to the realm of long-term relationships.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens with these social discovery apps.  Maybe I’ll be proved wrong and the future will be full of iPhone enabled introductions and good vibrations.  Until then, I’ll stick to having mediocre Chinese food with my friends, and we’ll try to figure out which tables at the restaurant met on Highlight.

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Check out my dating website: Circl.es. It’s simple, web-based, slow, not-annoying, and it might actually help you find a date. It works best for smart people who have friends.  And it doesn’t vibrate.

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