An app for “online-only” relationships is banking on it
I don’t know, guys. Loneliness is real, and flirting online is fun, and maybe you don’t want anything serious, just the old back-and-forth with a looker you never have to take to dinner. And lots of people never meet up with the people they match and message with on various dating apps as it is (at least a third of online daters never do). So maybe there’s something to Phrendly, the app that says it’s designed to foster “real relationships that are exclusively online” for a small price.
Here’s how it works: Say you’re a man looking for women to only “talk” to. You browse a slew of candidates who’ve uploaded a picture (with options to chat, call, or video) and ranked themselves on qualities such as emotional stability and openness to experience (based off a personality test, which may not be that great for dating, but who cares if you’ll never be dating). Nina, 22, for instance, describes herself as “a sweet lil loaf of bread,” who considers herself “controlled, stress free” and “sociable, enthusiastic.”
Then you would “show your interest” in Nina by initiating a conversation with her. And after 10 back-and-forths, you’d buy her a virtual drink — which costs $10. According to the site’s director of product marketing, Melanie de Leon, that drink buys you 20 sips, and “cash rewards are paid out via check or direct deposit to users’ bank accounts.”
Yes, you read that right: It’s actual money you’re paying the woman to talk to you (or man, if the woman initiates and buys the drink). “This is reminiscent of someone who asks a person out for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine in real life; social convention dictates that person buys the drink,” de Leon told MEL by email. “By recognizing that a person’s time is valuable, Phrendly is able to keep people motivated and focused while keeping time-wasters and scammers at bay. No response? No charge. Also, there’s no need to spend an entire ‘drink’ on a single phrend exchange. Sips may be used across multiple conversations.”
Phrendly says it uses a “unique vetting process” to verify the users and manually review profiles, making sure there’s no scamming, though arguably, getting paid to flirt and never have to meet up is, in some universe, a kind of feminist scammer dream for women: Commodifying the chase without ever having to give up the goods. A Phrendly-promoted post on Reddit about 10 months ago makes no bones about this part of the setup, self-describing as “a new option for women to have fun and make money anywhere, anytime by texting guys.”
In that same post, their bid to women goes like this: “You’re an attractive, amazing woman with a natural appeal to men. Your flirting has driven more than a few guys wild. You’ve also got bills to pay. Don’t you wish you could earn money for your talents safely according to a schedule you set that didn’t require you to dive into the world of adult entertainment?”
I asked Phrendly what man demographics it was working off, and if this was basically an app for paid sexting, and de Leon said, “Some men simply aren’t in the market for a serious relationship, travel frequently for work, or are too busy to date IRL, but still crave interaction with attractive and engaging women. For guys who tend to be shy or uncomfortable chatting up women in their everyday lives, Phrendly is a safe place for their ‘online self to engage with people they wouldn’t otherwise have the confidence to talk to for fear of rejection.”
De Leon said one of their users told them he actually bounces anecdotes about his real dating life with his “phrends” to get the female perspective. This makes it sound like part therapy, part probably sexting and part paid companionship, but I still have more questions: What if you end up having feelings for your phrend, but you live in Seattle and she lives in Phriladelphia? What if you end up falling in love in a phrenzy of phrenetic connection and want to start a phrenology business, but then you don’t know if it’s you or your virtual drinks she phell for? Isn’t this basically what cam girls do, but without the tit shots, and also the plot of Phretty Woman? Yes, I’ll stop now.
In Phrendly’s defense, it says it isn’t trying to be “all things to all people.” De Leon added, “Our aim is not to replace real-life relationships, but to deliver a new kind of social experience.”
That social experience, she explained, hinges on the idea that meeting up in real life can be a real bummer, and that much we can agree on. “The chemistry experienced within online exchanges frequently doesn’t translate in person,” she wrote. “Often times, expectations are misaligned: She’s looking for a long-term relationship, and he’s only interested in a fling. Many lament how meeting in-person ‘killed’ what was a fun online relationship.”
She’s not wrong, and what’s also not wrong is how hard it was for me to not change fling to phling. For people who want this sort of thing, it seems pretty cheap and easy. And for women looking to do this sort of thing, I’d say it’s a better way to turn a few bucks than Tinder. Maggie Archer taught us all that valuable lesson when she put “Send me $5, see what happens” in her Tinder profile — then proceeded to immediately unmatch everyone who did, which resulted in making some dough, but also angering the internet and getting Archer banned from Tinder.
That said, it’s hard to imagine who thinks keeping a relationship exclusively online will somehow buffer them from the pain of it not working out. I guess tell that to the 80,000 people who have allegedly signed up already, according to the company’s own figures. Also feel like this is a boon for bored marrieds.
For what it’s worth, Phrendly doesn’t consider itself a “dating” app anyway. More of a “new millennium pen pal site.” Plus, the company argues that by incentivizing the dynamic and making it clear up front you’re never going to bone this person, everything is easier and more fun. And unlike the real world, you get a free drink just for trying. It’s a phake drink, but since you’re using Phrendly, ostensibly you don’t mind.
Tracy Moore is a staff writer at MEL. She last wrote about why bears are not your friends.