A mutual hate for a teacher or a quick conversation used to be enough to seal a friendship. But when you’re an adult, making a mate feels harder than buying that first house. It’s no wonder the classic coming-of-age film Stand By Me ended with the wise words: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”
On the internet, connections are often shallow, which makes it unsurprising that 54 per cent of young people feel lonely. The numbers don’t lie. Lifeline, a national charity that provides support for emotional distress and suicide prevention, received its highest number of calls last year – up 40 per cent from just two years prior.
Over the last decade, the internet has given second life to hooking up and encouraged us to broadcast our relationship drama. But while paying for Bumble Premium or OnlyFans is somewhat acceptable these days, paying to meet friends is something yet to be normalised.
Enter OnlyFriends – the site made purely for meeting friends locally and globally. Instead of paying for a dating app that gives you access to “entrepreneurs” embracing minimal fashion along with 30 other dudes, OnlyFriends is designed to connect you to people who might actually give a shit. While you’re still essentially paying to be friend-zoned, OnlyFriends asserts “friends are better than fans.”
OnlyFriends founder Shaun Mahoney told VICE we need any help we can get to form genuine friendships once we hit our 20s.
“Social media today has become such a degenerative community. Excuse my language, but it’s just actual shit. Everyone is just either bagging on each other, complaining or using it to push something,” he said.
With a background in computer programming and finance, a serious neck injury that required major discectomy and fusion surgeries left Mahoney spending a year in hospital.
“In a nutshell, they break your pelvis with a hammer and chisel to get bone, then they cut your neck open from end to end, cover your neck with a sheath, screw in a titanium plate to two of your vertebrae then attempt to sew you back together again,” said Shaun.
“It looks like they cut my head off and put it back on, which is basically what they did.”
As a result, he lost feeling in two of his fingers, can’t turn his head like a regular person and has scars across his stomach and neck.
“My life was utterly destroyed in that year – I was abandoned in every sense,” he says. “Loneliness is devastating… It’s a quiet killer, especially in Australia, where we struggle to ask for help and have that ‘should be right’ attitude.”
Mahoney decided to tackle this problem by launching OnlyFriends in September 2021.
On OnlyFriends, you can message individual members or create your own group based on location or interests. While made in Australia, the site recently launched globally after they found most of their visits were coming internationally and bypassing security to try and sign up (Germans were the top offenders, in case you were wondering). Access will set you back $4.99 a month.
Rachael Kobold is 27-years-old, “living in the middle of nowhere” in Buckenbowra, New South Wales, and is one of OnlyFriends’ success stories. She was working as a travel agent but moved with her fiancé after they both lost their jobs during the pandemic.
“There’s nothing out here, it’s literally just a farm,” she told VICE.
Rachael started her own women’s group when previously living in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, and was trawling the internet to see if there was anything similar in Buckenbowra.
“I had to do a double take when I saw OnlyFriends. Even now, when I type it, I have to make sure I’m typing the right thing,” she says. “But it looked like they got everything together so I signed up.”
So far, there’s a group in every capital city – but because Rachael is 300km away from Sydney, she joined virtual events instead. Rachael soon connected with another lady who also worked as a travel agent – they plan to meet up in person soon.
“We’re in pretty regular contact, we bitch about the travel industry,” Rachel said. “I was surprised to find someone who I genuinely connected with… when you become an adult it’s really hard to make friends.”
“When you’re in school, you’re constantly surrounded by people and opportunities to create friends, but when you become an adult it’s pretty much just your colleagues.”
Rachael hasn’t had a bad experience on the site yet, but had heard that one of the real-life events had gotten a bit rowdy afterwards.
“It was after an OnlyFriends catch-up and some of the girls decided to go out and drink more, one of them got really drunk and harassed people and didn’t want to get in a taxi but they sorted it all out.”
Intrigued, inspired and not one to ignore my FOMO, I decided to sign up and take a test drive. After filling in some details for my profile, it was easy to find and join a group in Sydney. The only problem was that there were only 35 members – and the last message in the group chat was from November. There were a few brunches flagged for the coming week, but all with zero attendees.
I was just about to open Netflix and give up when I received a new message: an automated one from Alexa, OnlyFriend’s virtual host. That certainly took the shine off of things. Hey Alexa, how about some real people I can chat to?
The site is slick, easy to navigate and has enough flashing colours to retain my attention. And while there’s a lot of features and potential, there’s just one thing missing:
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