“OnlyFriends” is a website focused on connecting in the real world. This left me looking for real people.

A mutual hatred for a teacher or a quick conversation was enough to seal a friendship. But when you’re an adult, making a mate seems harder than buying that first home. It’s no wonder the classic coming-of-age movie support me ended with these wise words: “I never had friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, is anyone?”

On the Internet, connections are often shallow, so it’s no surprise that 54% 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 more calls last year – up 40% from just two years ago.

Over the past decade, the internet has given dating a second life and encouraged us to air our relationship dramas. But while paying for Bumble Premium or OnlyFans is somewhat acceptable these days, paying to meet friends is something that’s not yet standardized.

Enter OnlyFriends – the uniquely designed site for meeting friends locally and globally. Instead of paying for a dating app that gives you access to minimal fashion “entrepreneurs” with 30 other guys, OnlyFriends is designed to connect you to people who really couldn’t care less. While you’re still essentially paying to be friends, OnlyFriends claims that “friends are better than fans”.

OnlyFriends founder Shaun Mahoney told VICE that we need all the help we can get to form real friendships once we hit our 20s.

“Social media has become such a degenerative community today. Excuse my language, but it’s just real shit. Everyone gets carried away or complains or uses 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 required Mahoney to spend a year in the hospital.

“In a nutshell, they break your pelvis with a hammer and chisel to get some bone, then they cut your neck end to end, cover your neck with a sheath, screw a titanium plate two your vertebrae then attempt to sew you back together,” Shaun said.

“Looks like they cut my head off and put it back, which is basically what they did.”

As a result, he lost feeling in two of his fingers, cannot turn his head like an ordinary person, and has scars on his stomach and neck.

“My life was completely destroyed that year – I was abandoned in every way,” he says. “Loneliness is devastating… It’s a silent killer, especially in Australia where we find it hard 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. Although made in Australia, the site recently launched globally after it was discovered that most of their visits were from overseas and bypassed security to try to register (Germans were the main offenders, at least in case you were wondering). Access will cost you $4.99 per month.

Rachael Kobold is 27, “lives in the middle of nowhere” in Buckenbowra, New South Wales, and is one of OnlyFriends success stories. She used to work as a travel agent but moved in with her fiancé after they both lost their jobs during the pandemic.

“There’s nothing here, it’s literally just a farm,” she told VICE.

Rachael started her own women’s group when she previously lived in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales and scoured 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 type the right thing,” she says. “But it seemed like they had it all set up, so I signed up.”

So far there is a group in each capital city – but as Rachael is 300km from Sydney she has joined virtual events instead. Rachael quickly contacted another woman who also worked as a travel agent – they plan to meet in person soon.

“We’re in pretty regular contact, bitching about the travel industry,” Rachel said. “I was surprised to find someone I really 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 make friends, but when you become an adult, it’s just your colleagues.”

Rachael hasn’t had a bad experience on the site yet, but had heard that one of the actual events got a little loud 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 got everything ruler.”

Intrigued, inspired, and not one to ignore my FOMO, I decided to sign up and take it for a test drive. After filling in a few 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 post in the group chat was in November. There were a few brunches reported for the coming week, but all without any attendees.

I was about to open Netflix and give up when I received a new message: an automated message from Alexa, OnlyFriend’s virtual host. It certainly took the shine out of things. Hey Alexa, how about some real people I can chat with?

The site is slick, easy to navigate, and has enough flashing colors to hold my attention. And while there’s a lot of functionality and potential, there’s only one thing missing:

People.

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