February 06, 2001
Jessica M. Scully
Eight years after moving to San Francisco, Alexandria Ducheneaux still sometimes feels socially isolated. “You go to a bar, and everybody is in their own social circles,” says the 30-year-old acupuncturist. “Everybody in the city goes out for lunch on [their] own,” she says. “You look around and you never know anybody.”
Ducheneaux is one of more than 1,000 people who have joinedfreefor, a Website that offers to help people meet one another nationwide. Neither a dating service nor just a virtual community, freefor helps people with similar interests living in the same area link up via the Web, then meet in person for lunch, hiking, biking, book reading, or other activities.
Four friends from Harvard Law School hatched the idea after scattering to separate internship assignments in New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. They thought they could use the Internet to meet new people and help those people meet one another. “A group of us who founded the company were thinking about how rich Internet action was, but as that increased the real-world connection decreased,” says Shahed Amanullah, freefor’s CEO.
His words echo research conducted during the past several years linking time spent on the Web to a decline in face-to-face “real-life” interactions. About a quarter of people who spend five or more hours per week online say they spent less time with family and friends as a result, according to a study by the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society.
The situation could get worse, Amanullah says, as Web shopping further erodes people’s chances for serendipitous interactions at book stores, libraries, even grocery stores. So the company’s founders say they simply want to move these chance meetings online as well.
New freefor members fill out a questionnaire on the site regarding their hobbies, interests, and experience level at each. Once registered, they can suggest an activity–say, a game of tennis or a hike. Then the site matches all members likely to be interested in that activity, and emails them a link to a password-protected page where they can post messages to one another to work out details.
Amanullah stresses that freefor is not a dating service; activities require a minimum of three people. And unlike patrons of dating sites, freefor users can’t search for partners based on age, gender, or physical characteristics. “If you’re going to see a movie, and you have the same interests, what does it matter if there’s an 80-year-old grandmother and a teenager?” he says.
Still, who’s to stop romance from crossing a member’s mind? Wendy Lingo of San Jose, Calif., was searching for a beau when she first signed up. But even though the 31-year-old corporate accounts manager met her current boyfriend in a park, she says she still uses freefor to network and to meet new friends. The best thing about freefor, she says, is that it’s a casual, stress-free way to meet people. No photos or vital statistics are required.
Daniel Cravens of Albany, Calif., says freefor events help him indulge his interest in the arts, politics, and history. The 32-year-old lawyer, who recently graduated from Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley, says the “real world” can be a lonely place. “In school, there’s kind of an assumption that everyone’s willing to talk with you,” he says. But in San Francisco’s financial district, where he works, “I don’t necessarily feel that I can be at lunch and just start talking to people sitting at the table next to me.”
Despite raves from users, freefor has a long way to go before reaching a critical mass of members nationwide. The site has been operating only since August, and events have been lunches, mostly in and around San Francisco, the company’s launch pad. The site’s creators are in talks with Internet service providers, wireless companies, and several other large organizations to see if they’ll pay to make the service available to their employees or customers, Amanullah says.
So, if that tennis racket has been sitting idle in your closet, or if you’ve been dying to discuss your favorite sci-fi novel with someone, log on. A whole new social life could be freefor the clicking.