It is common knowledge that people make friends easily in their younger years.
In school or in college, even in university, people are open, they have time, and friendships happen easily.
Later in life, people move away, have different family and professional commitments, and it simply becomes inconvenient to keep in touch at meaningful levels.
Long distance relationships are not as rewarding. You can't share meals or go to the movies and concerts together anymore. And if you need them, your friends are not around.
And yet, making new friends that are sufficiently meaningful also becomes harder.
Friends, however, are an important component of a fulfilling life.
I have seen, here and there, some attempts to facilitate friendships and community building through online services / apps. But I don't believe there is one that has taken off.
I am looking at this opportunity not as a venture-scale startup but rather as a small-scale idea. Borrowing from the business model of the online dating industry, I am assuming a $19.99/month price point. This means, to do $1M in revenue, you need 4500 paying customers on a monthly basis.
That's where you need to focus: what is the ideal user-experience of an app that wants to facilitate friendships?
To begin with, segmentation is critical.
There is one group of people who have small children. They tend to socialize with other families with small children. This type of friendship happens around the children at the center. They often stem from schools or neighborhoods. To this group, what would an online service bring that is additional and differentiated?
My answer to this question is based on a friend of mine's experience with this segment. She socialized with women who were the mothers of her sons, but often had nothing in common with them. Now, the sons are grown, and these women want to still continue socializing. She doesn't. She still has nothing in common with them.
This begs the much subtler question: what is at the heart of a deep, meaningful friendship?
Situations? Common interests? Ethnicity? Shared backgrounds? Shared experiences?
My experience says that with childhood friendships or friendships from the youth, people tend to be much less selective. As they grow older, become more who they are, they choose more precisely, less circumstantially.
Also, different people choose differently. Some care more about common backgrounds and cultural affinity. Others care about common interests.
I believe, common backgrounds without common interests make for rather superficial friendships. In fact, diverse backgrounds with common interests have much stronger sustaining power.
Of course, that is only the beginning. You also need chemistry, shared values, sustained exposure, activities, and experiences that build up over time.
So, any online service that attempts to put people together needs to keep this analysis in mind. Matching two people just because they hail from the same city is not a good algorithm. Rather, two people who hail from two different countries but share a passion for T. S. Eliot may find a much deeper connection.
Situations and stages of life, however, are critical sorting factors. People with small children are not compatible with those who want to go out to classical music concerts on a regular basis.
In any case, I am sure there is plenty of sociological research available on this subject. Do your research if you want to attempt a shot at cracking this problem. I have my own ideas on the topic, and would be happy to help.
Photo credit: My Photo Journeys/Flickr.com.