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Wanted: used car, summer sublet and ... a new best friend

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Keenen Thompson, 18, checks the ad he posted on the online classified-ad site Craigslist looking for new friends. Thompson says that it gives him more control over the types of people he meets. (Photo by Jill Colvin/CNS)

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More and more friend seekers are posting ads on the free online classified-ad site Craigslist in hopes of finding connections. (Photo by Jill Colvin/CNS)

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Keenen Thompson, 18, uses the online classified-ad site Craigslist to try to meet new friends. (Photo by Jill Colvin/CNS)

When Jamie Alexander, 33, decided it was time to expand her social circle, she didn’t try joining a book club or approaching strangers in crowded bars. Instead, the Seattle native, who moved to New York City two years ago, posted an ad online.

“In New York, I found it is very hard to find connections because everybody is busy,” she says. “Everybody is into their own world.” She thought Craigslist, which she’d once used to find a roommate, might be a solution. “You never know,” a co-worker said when she made the suggestion.

“I am looking for a cool friend to hang out with (shopping, movie, bowling, walking, etc.). Strictly platonic,” the ad read. Twenty-four hours after posting, she’d received 23 responses.

Craigslist, the free online classified-ad site offering everything from sketchy apartment sublets to free kittens, is best known for facilitating introductions of the X-rated persuasion. Yet every day, across the nation, hundreds of friend seekers like Alexander post personal ads under the “Strictly Platonic” section of the site seeking connections.

Introduced at the end of 2003, the section has grown 100 percent over the past two years, according to company CEO Jim Buckmaster, “considerably greater than the rate for our personals section as a whole,” he said in an e-mail. And though it is still less popular than the site’s other personals categories, Strictly Platonic receives about 120,000 posts a month of the site’s total of 40 million.

Many of those who use the site are new to a city, bored with their routines or looking for fresh companions for museum visits, dinners out or late-night conversation. Deborah Montgomery, 26, a student stationed with her Marine husband in Oceanside, Calif., complained in her (so far unanswered) post that most of her current friends live too far away to join her for morning workouts and sushi lunches. One “Sincere, Fun Loving, Laid Back & All Around Nice Guy” posted an ad because too many in his former circle have moved on or married. “Looking for a new BFF,” many headlines read—a new “best friend forever.”

While no data are available about how many of these ads actually lead to real-life friendships, research shows that most relationships that begin online don’t stay there. Nearly two-thirds of individuals who meet online eventually communicate offline, either by phone or mail or face-to-face, according to Malcolm R. Parks, associate professor at the University of Washington, who conducted a study and has written extensively about the link between online and offline communication.

And while advertising for friends alongside old bicycles and worn leather couches might strike some as insincere, psychologists point out that forming friendships is actually far from the idealized process some people assume it is.

“We like to think that friendship is this magical, magical thing,” says Nancy Baym, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas who studies online relationships. “The truth is, it’s not.”

Study after study finds that, when it comes to predicting who will become friends with whom, it’s not shared interests or common values that matter most but simple frequency of interaction. The more opportunities people have to talk, the more likely they are to keep on talking. Those whose paths cross most often are most likely to forge connections.

But because people today move more frequently and are settling in cities at much higher rates, close relationships are increasingly difficult to form and maintain, Baym says. “Friendships are harder and harder” and “are more valuable than ever before and more fragile than ever before.”

Abigail Swarth, 18, from Roslyn, N.Y., for instance, started posting on the site because she was frustrated by how difficult it was for her to meet new friends. She says she longs for diversity, which she can’t always find among her high school peers.

“They all tend to be the same people, the same personalities, because I meet them in the same places,” she says.

Swarth stumbled on the platonic-friends section of Craigslist three months ago while trying to find a used car and noticed that “a lot of the people sounded pretty cool.” When she posted her first ad seeking “some good friends who are up for partying on the weekends,” she wasn’t sure what to expect. To her surprise, she received nearly 70 responses.

Though she admits “many of the people are creepy,” others were “really nice and really friendly.” She still talks to five or six via e-mail and instant message and two “became really good friends,” frequently going out to movies and parties together.

Experts say that being online encourages people like Alexander and Swarth to take chances they ordinarily wouldn’t.

According to Parks, the Internet has a unique “aura of intimacy” that leads people to disclose information that they’d keep secret in other settings. As a result, many are more willing to try something that is potentially embarrassing online—like admitting that one’s social circle is not as illustrious as one might desire—than they would in person.

And it may not be surprising that Craigslist’s biggest draw, for many, is that it gives posters the ability to exert more control over the types of people they meet.

Keenen Thompson, 18, who lives in Queens, N.Y., for instance, is looking to find older friends who share more of his interests, which include vegan eating and off-Broadway shows. The part-time student, part-time marketing employee had already used the site to find everything from cars to computers to technical services and jobs. “It worked for everything else I’ve used it for,” he figured. “Why not try it for friends?”

Unlike going to a bar, where he might talk to anyone, he says, he can tailor his ads to attract a particular type of person who already knows about some of his interests. “It takes the random out of the occasion,” he says. “It’s more directed, selective.”

Indeed, posters frequently outline particular requirements and characteristics they’re seeking in respondents. Swarth’s most recent ad, for instance, warns, “YOU MUST BE AT LEAST 18, 21 and up is a plus too, but nobody over 27!!!” Also required: “Don’t look like you’re young,” and “Know people (promoters, club owners ... etc.). It’ll make life easier.”

Alexander agrees that having the power to make decisions about whose messages to return has been her favorite part of the Craigslist experience.

“I’m the one who decides who I want to reply back to,” she says. “With this I get control.”

E-mail: jc2352@columbia.edu