The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who needs friends when you have a smartphone?


Kindly is a feel-good social network with a radical premise: In a scene that’s frequently accused of fostering little but negativity, narcissism and superficiality, it insists that Internet strangers can actually care for each other — substantively and meaningfully, for nothing but the greater good.

The free app, released quietly to the App Store last month, pairs users with “helpful listeners” for short, one-on-one chats on issues ranging from addiction, divorce and family issues to “inspiration” and “everyday life.” After signing up for the app with an e-mail address or Facebook account, users select the topic they need to talk about and describe their problem. Within minutes, they’re matched with a stranger for a 15-minute session.

“If you feel stressed-out or isolated on a Monday night, or if there’s something you can’t talk to your spouse about — that’s what Kindly is for,” said Jordan Walker, the app’s creator. “The goal is to make people feel less isolated. To make them aware that they’re not alone, they’re never alone — there’s always another person going through the same thing.”

The idea of an anonymous chat app isn’t exactly earth-shattering: Kindly joins startups like the therapy-minded 7 Cups of Tea, as well as the newer wave of anonymous-sharing apps, in connecting like-minded users who want to get vulnerable via their phones. What’s particularly interesting about Kindly, however, is that it merges the therapeutic ministries of 7 Cups with the unscreened, anonymous free-for-all of Whisper or Secret.

It’s serious interventions, set up casually. It’s like Tinder, but for connections of the non-romantic kind.

Moreover, Kindly strikes at a time when connections — the substantive, life-affirming, have-your-back kind of connections, not necessarily the type you make on LinkedIn — could not be more critical. The average American trusts fewer people and confides in fewer people than he did 20 years ago, repeat studies suggest. And even if people have vast social networks on Facebook or Twitter, those networks are rarely indicative of “core” contacts — the number of friends or relatives you can turn to in sensitive, personal situations.

In fact, it was exactly that type of situation that inspired Walker, Kindly’s founder, to begin working on the app. Divorced in his early 30s and surrounded by single friends, Walker found himself venting to the same people over and over again. They were sympathetic, but knew nothing about marriage, and Walker worried about wearing them out. He also saw a therapist, which he calls “really important” — but his therapist wasn’t available, or necessarily suited, for Walker’s off-hours soul-searching.

Essentially, Walker was grappling with a difficult reality of modern life: In between the little drips of sincerity you post to Facebook, and the official, professional intervention of a trained psychologist, are a whole lot of routine sorrows and grievances that, in today’s fast-paced, loosely-tied world, you often can’t really tell anyone. And that’s despite of, or perhaps because of, the proliferation of new technologies available for doing just that: telling people things.

“We’re trying to provide access to helpful people, in a way you can’t do in person” or on other Web sites, Walker explained. “I went on divorce forums, and I checked out apps like Whisper and Secret. But I never felt that feeling of seriousness or trust.”

On Kindly, Walker said, the vibe is different: In the four weeks since the app’s soft launch and the one week since its more formal announcement, the app has attracted thousands of “really positive, uplifting, mature” users, including psychology students and professional therapists.

Stephen Schueller, a research professor at Northwestern University’s Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies, compares it, not facetiously, to Uber and AirBnB: The app could lower barriers to service in an otherwise highly regulated industry, he says, making casual talk therapy — what Schueller says is often the first, minimal step in modern therapy models — cheap, timely and accessible to the lonely and iPhone-equipped.

There are drawbacks to disruption, too, of course. Kindly does not screen its listeners, though it does encourage users to rate them after sessions. Schueller worries that the lack of “quality control” could prove problematic — particularly if, or when, Kindly’s confronted by more severe situations. (Walker doesn’t currently have a plan for dealing with a suicide threat, for instance, besides a link out to the National Suicide Hotline.) And John Grohol, the founder of PsychCentral and an expert on online mental health, also cautions against putting too much emotional investment in a private app, which could, realistically, go under at any time — or turn user data to nefarious uses.

Those are legitimate, practical concerns, and worth considering whenever you entrust personal data to an app or website. But privacy issues aside, it increasingly seems that we may benefit from trusting the machines. Just this week, a study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior found that certain populations experience profound social and emotional benefits from excessive Internet use — even Internet use bordering on addiction. That comes on the heels of past research that has found people who share more on online also tend to have larger and more diverse social networks.

“We’re quick to paint technology, especially new communication technologies, as ‘the devil,’” said Kate Magsamen-Conrad, a professor at Bowling State University and the lead researcher on the Computers in Human Behavior study. “But technology can be ‘good’ within parameters for certain individuals, most especially if it facilitates communication in relationships.”

Whether Kindly will pass that test remains to be seen. Even as I type, I’m waiting for the app to match me with someone to talk to me about my “business/work” problems (a.k.a., finishing this article). I put myself out there! I got vulnerable on my phone! Kindly’s wait screen assures me that the the average match is found in one to two minutes; I have been waiting nearly 10.

Maybe the app is overloaded right now — or maybe there are some disconnects even technology can’t bridge.