the irl revolution: how friendship is moving offline

As Facebook fatigue sets in, we examine the ways in which millennials and Generation Z are finding fun offline, from co-living communes to phone bans.

by Jane Helpern
23 November 2015, 3:35pm

Photography Petra Collins for Me and You

It's no secret that we're in the midst of a massive social media backlash (and backlash to said backlash). The latest chapter involves teen insta-star Essena O'Neill's viral campaign to expose Instagram fraud and leverage her influence to create a "positive collaborative forum for individuals to talk about REAL WORLD stuff." But whether you buy into her IRL movement or see it as a publicity gimmick, new insights into young adult friendships reveal that O'Neill, however controversial, is consistent with the millennial push to move offline and reconnect in real life.

For the past ten years, so many of our interactions have occurred within the silos of computer screens and smartphones. We've tweeted, texted, instant messaged, blogged, Instagrammed, liked, snapped, and swiped right. Entire careers and personalities were born (and died) without even stepping foot outside. Now that our ability to use these platforms to craft false realities has been more than sufficiently proven (and "catfish" is officially a verb), young people are yearning for something deeper and more authentic.

Offline, geography has made IRL connection a challenge. Vox reports that major US cities are seemingly designed to keep people apart, with young adults priced out of highly walkable neighborhoods, thus eliminating opportunity for healthy spontaneous connections.

What's more, the rise in celebrity girl squads has fetishized the very idea of friendship.

In The Female Friendship Myth, Phoebe Maltz Bovy argues that due to our obsession with celeb BFFs like Taylor Swift and her gang, and the Jenner/Hadid posse, "lacking a gang of female friends is a greater stigma than being single." If we we were once jealous of girls with boyfriends, our envy has been redirected to girls with...lots of girlfriends. When we see images of hardcore girl-on-girl bonding we feel like everyone is hanging out without us. Thankfully, there's an app for that!

Squad, which has already raised more than $1.7 million in funding, helps men and women expand their social circles and achieve their fantasy #SquadGoals. The app connects groups of 2-6 with other friend groups of 2-6, and capitalizes on the Instagram-accelerated phenomenon of carefully curating your squad. In a sense, it's the answer to crew-envy. CEO Adam Liebman explains that the app was designed to mimic the way we meet friends in real life. "We purposely didn't design a single person mode, because we're about people hanging out with their friends, having a great time, and then meeting new people when they're already feeling comfortable and confident."

Liebman tells us that he's already seen Squad used for all types of connections, from sports fans looking for new recruits to watch the game with, to groups who linked up at the bar and continued hanging after that first meet. "So far, we've seen an incredibly high percentage of Squad matches actually meet up in real life," says Liebman. "Humans are naturally social creatures and Squad takes advantage of that."

According to a recent Gallup poll, increasing numbers of young adults (ages 18-29) are remaining single and living on their own, a significant rise from 52% in 2004 to 64% in 2014. But we're talking about a highly social group, raised on 24/7 communication, hence the nickname "FOMO Generation." Add to the mix a pricey and competitive rental market, and the time is right for "co-living," an arrangement in which three or more unrelated individuals live together, united by shared goals and common interests. Proposed as "a possible solution for lonely millennials" by a recent article in The Atlantic, these "dorms for grown-ups" take the popular idea of co-working spaces to the next level by offering affordable micro-units equipped with private kitchens, bedrooms, and bathrooms, with common areas for gaming, cooking, and other activities.

Commonspace, a new co-living community in Syracuse, asserts on its website: "We are all social creatures, and the best versions of ourselves are expressed when we do so in a group." "Millennials are looking for a better way to connect," says Commonspace founder Troy Evans. "From the mass exodus from city centers to the suburbs, which resulted in the decline of the urban neighborhood, to the rise of the independent worker population who primarily work in solitude, to the hectic life of the western world that puts less emphasis on meaningful connections, to the rise of social media. Each of these has chipped away away at our ability to have face-to-face connections."

Evans' vision for a more intimately connected society isn't just appealing. It's almost utopian in its mission to combine layout, tech and culture in a way that allows people to live small, experience the city, and interact naturally. Iterations of it do exist, though, like Krash in Boston, NYC, and DC (a startup focused residence that claims more than 200 companies have been born within its walls), Podshare in Los Angeles (where some "podestrians" have even gotten tribe-like tattoos), Pure House in Williamsburg (which has been compared to a "millennial commune"), and Berlin's pioneering R50 Baugruppen project (architect-led and community-funded). Each community has its own unique style, but all offer affordability and opportunities for socializing in an increasingly isolated world.

Co-living is an extreme option and isn't right for everyone. More opt for less drastic behavioural modifications, like stashing your phone away during a catch-up dinner with friends, or picking up the phone to call instead of sending an impersonal text. Allie, a Los Angeles based marketing manager for a popular sock brand, is gearing up for a trip to Colombia with co-workers. There, they'll be accompanied by a personal photographer provided by El Camino Travel, whose mission is to enable authentic, distraction-free experiences that allow people to leave their phones at home and live in the moment. The resident photographer will deliver 20+ images each morning that travelers can then immediately share on social media. "To ensure we spend time soaking up the experience, not trying to snap a sweet insta," says Allie.

All of this is not to villainize the very valuable role of social media in our new social climate. It's just that perhaps it only reaches its full potential when used in tandem with, and as a catalyst for, real flesh-and-blood human interaction. Not as a replacement for it.


Text Jane Helpern
Photography Petra Collins for Me and You

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