How to Make Billions of Dollars Reducing Loneliness

Loneli­ness Is a Big Problem

On Face­book, my friend Tyler writes:

Lately, I’ve been hav­ing an alarm­ing amount of con­ver­sa­tions arise about the bur­dens of loneli­ness, aliena­tion, rootless­ness, and a lack of be­long­ing that many of my peers feel, es­pe­cially in the Bay Area. I feel it too. Every­one has a gazillion friends and events to at­tend. But there’s a pal­pable lack of so­cial fabric. I worry that this at­om­iza­tion is be­com­ing a world-wide phe­nomenon – that we might be some of the first gen­er­a­tions with­out the sort of com­mu­nity that it’s in hu­man na­ture to rely on.

And that the re­sult is a wors­en­ing epi­demic of men­tal ill­ness...

Without the frame­work of a unit­ing re­li­gion, eth­nic­ity, or pur­pose, it’s hard to get peo­ple to truly com­mit to a given com­mu­nity. Espe­cially when it’s so easy to swipe left and opt for things that offer the fleet­ing feel­ing of com­mu­nity with­out be­ing the real thing: the par­ties, the once-a-month lec­ture se­ries, the Face­book threads, the work­shops, the New Age cer­e­monies. We of­ten use these as “com­mu­nity porn” – they’re eas­ier than the real thing and they satisfy enough of the crav­ing. But they don’t make you whole.

I’ve had some thoughts about ex­per­i­ments to try. But then I think about how hard it is (es­pe­cially in this ge­o­graphic area) to get peo­ple to show up to some­thing on at least a weekly ba­sis. Even if it’s for some­thing re­ally great. I see many great at­tempts at com­mu­nity slowly pe­ter out.

Young peo­ple are lonely. Old peo­ple are lonely. Loneli­ness is bad for your health. It’s bad for so­ciety’s health.

Hav­ing a smart­phone that keeps you en­ter­tained all day, and enough money to live by your­self, might sound like first world prob­lems. But they are likely con­trib­u­tors to loneli­ness. And as de­vel­op­ing coun­tries get richer, they’ll start hav­ing first world prob­lems too. So I think ad­dress­ing loneli­ness could be very high-lev­er­age for the world.

Peo­ple are start­ing busi­nesses to ad­dress loneli­ness: you can pay some­one to call you pe­ri­od­i­cally or take you for a walk. But I’d ar­gue these ser­vices are a band-aid in the same sense that par­ties, work­shops, and cer­e­monies are. They don’t solve the un­der­ly­ing prob­lem: You’re still alone by de­fault in­stead of to­gether by de­fault.

Room­mates Could Be a Great Solution

So­ciol­o­gists think there are three con­di­tions nec­es­sary for mak­ing friends: prox­im­ity; re­peated, un­planned in­ter­ac­tions; and a set­ting that en­courages peo­ple to let their guard down and con­fide in each other. Th­ese con­di­tions tend to be pre­sent dur­ing col­lege for many peo­ple, but not af­ter­wards.

Why do peo­ple find it eas­ier to make friends in col­lege? Maybe it’s be­cause col­lege stu­dents don’t usu­ally live alone.

Go­ing to events doesn’t work be­cause (a) you don’t typ­i­cally get re­peated in­ter­ac­tions with the same per­son and (b) events take place at a sched­uled time. Which may or may not be a time you’re feel­ing lonely.

If you have a lot of room­mates, all you have to do is step out­side your room and find some­one to chat with. No trans­porta­tion CO2 emis­sions needed. But more im­por­tant, you know your room­mates are always gonna be around.

But I Already Have Roommates

Even if you already have room­mates, I think there’s a good chance your room­mate situ­a­tion is un­der-op­ti­mized. Given that you spend so much time with them, there’s a lot of value in liv­ing with peo­ple you re­ally con­nect with. (Find­ing great cowork­ers makes sense for similar rea­sons.)

The lay­out of your house and the num­ber of room­mates you have can also make a big differ­ence. I used to have friends liv­ing in a 4-bed­room place where all the bed­rooms opened di­rectly into a sin­gle large com­mon area. If any­one else was out­side their room, you’d im­me­di­ately know it and have an op­por­tu­nity for in­ter­ac­tion. Later I lived in an 8-bed­room place which felt far lone­lier, even with ev­ery room oc­cu­pied. The house was laid out so it was easy to go about your day with­out ever run­ning into a fel­low room­mate. I also lived in a house with over 50 bed­rooms for a while, which was wild & a lot of fun.

But I Don’t Want Roommates

One rea­son you might not want room­mates is be­cause you’re wor­ried you might have con­flict­ing prefer­ences for what liv­ing to­gether should be like. For ex­am­ple, my philos­o­phy to­wards dirty dishes is to let them pile up on the counter and pe­ri­od­i­cally stuff them all in the dish­washer, to be as time-effi­cient as pos­si­ble. Sur­pris­ingly, some peo­ple dis­like this ap­proach.

RoomieMatch.com is a web­site which tries to solve the room­mate com­pat­i­bil­ity prob­lem. You cre­ate a pro­file by an­swer­ing ques­tions about dishes, food in the fridge, house­clean­ing, so­cial events, noise, overnight guests, shared house­hold items, walk­ing around in your un­der­wear, TV, etc. In ad­di­tion, there are ques­tions to help pre­dict how you well you will con­nect as peo­ple.

You Could Make a Lot of Money

RoomieMatch has two search op­tions: free and cheap. Cheap costs $20/​year.

The prob­lem with RoomieMatch is they’re leav­ing a mas­sive amount of money on the table.

A few years ago, a friend of mine was jobless & strug­gling fi­nan­cially. He was liv­ing in a 4-bed­room house at the time, and he was the pri­mary con­tact with the land­lord. My friend took re­spon­si­bil­ity for vet­ting folks from Craigslist in or­der to fill the re­main­ing rooms in the house. He found that folks from Craigslist were will­ing to pay enough rent for the re­main­ing 3 rooms that he was able to live rent-free un­til he found a job.

I ac­knowl­edge this is murky eth­i­cal ter­ri­tory, and I’m not con­don­ing my friend’s ac­tions. (I don’t be­lieve any­one ever found out or got up­set, for what­ever that’s worth.) The point I’m try­ing to make is that prop­erty man­age­ment is way more lu­cra­tive than room­mate match­ing. RoomieMatch makes $20 per user per year at best. My friend was mak­ing $100+ per user per month.

What I’m sug­gest­ing is that you take the full-stack startup play­book which has been suc­cess­ful in Sili­con Valley re­cently, and ap­ply it to on­line room­mate match­ing + prop­erty man­age­ment.

The ex­treme full-stack ap­proach is to own your own prop­er­ties. Ap­par­ently the US has a sur­plus of big houses right now.

There are already play­ers in this space such as Roam which are prov­ing that peo­ple will pay for com­mu­nity. (As if peo­ple pay­ing ex­tra to live in hip cities like SF & NYC didn’t prove that already. BTW, I found that the awe­some com­mu­nity at the Athena Ho­tel more than made up for the fact that it’s in a non-hip city.) Any­way, I think ex­ist­ing play­ers are mostly pur­su­ing the ex­treme full-stack op­tion. I ac­tu­ally think this is the wrong play. You want to be a mar­ket­place, like Airbnb (val­ued at over $30 billion). The more peo­ple who are us­ing your tool, the finer-grained room­mate match­ing ser­vices you can provide. It’s hard to achieve mas­sive scale if you have to own ev­ery prop­erty. You want to be play­ing match­maker for in­di­vi­d­u­als with com­mon in­ter­ests who all hap­pen to be look­ing for rooms around the same time, plus land­lords with empty houses. Maybe you’ll want to un­der­cut RoomieMatch, and provide free match­ing ser­vices for peo­ple who live in their prop­er­ties, in or­der to achieve the nec­es­sary scale. (RoomieMatch’s ex­ist­ing scale is im­pres­sive by the way—I quickly got 100+ ac­tive, vet­ted matches in a mid­size US city when I tried the tool. If you have the money you might want to just buy it.)

So in­stead of buy­ing prop­er­ties, maybe you just want to con­tact peo­ple sel­l­ing large homes & see if you can con­vince them to let you man­age their prop­erty.

Note that this is a good com­pany to start if a re­ces­sion hap­pens, since peo­ple who cur­rently live alone will be think­ing about how to save on rent.

This Could Be Really Great

Most room­mate search tools, like Craigslist, don’t make it easy to figure out if a fu­ture room­mate is some­one you’d ac­tu­ally want to live with. Imag­ine reach­ing a scale where you could match peo­ple based on fac­tors like:

  • They love to play board games, or pool, or Su­per Smash Bros.

  • They want a com­post pile and a gar­den in their back­yard.

  • One has a pet, and the other likes an­i­mals but isn’t yet ready to make a life­time com­mit­ment.

  • They want a squat rack in the base­ment to save time & money go­ing to the gym.

  • They want to con­tinue par­ty­ing like col­lege stu­dents af­ter grad­u­a­tion.

  • They want to be part of an in­ten­tional com­mu­nity de­voted to mu­tual im­prove­ment and life op­ti­miza­tion, or spiritu­al­ity, or what­ever.

  • They want to share child­care re­spon­si­bil­ities.

  • They’re all fans of the same sports team.

  • They en­joy read­ing and dis­cussing the same genre of nov­els, or watch­ing the same movies.

  • They’re mu­si­ci­ans look­ing for peo­ple to jam with.

  • They want to live near hik­ing trails and go on group hikes to­gether.

  • They want to do in­de­pen­dent study of the same topic.

  • They’re try­ing to eat a healthier diet.

  • They just moved to a new city and want friends they can ex­plore the city with.

  • They have the same un­usual work sched­ule.

  • One needs a care­taker, and the other wants to make ex­tra money.

  • They like the idea of hav­ing a couch or two listed on CouchSur­fing.

  • One knows a lan­guage the other wants to learn.

  • They work close to­gether in the same ex­pen­sive metropoli­tan area and want save on hous­ing. So they live in the out­skirts of the city and com­mute to­gether ev­ery day us­ing the di­a­mond lane. One drives and the other pays for gas.

I also see op­por­tu­ni­ties to re­duce fric­tion in the cur­rent room­mate match­ing pro­cess:

  • Au­to­mat­i­cally find times when ev­ery­one is available for a meet & greet video call.

  • Let peo­ple take vir­tual tours of the houses on offer to min­i­mize driv­ing.

  • No need to worry about break­ing a lease if some­one moves to a differ­ent house in your com­pany’s net­work. Let peo­ple try out a few com­mu­ni­ties & see what works for them. Use ma­chine learn­ing to im­prove your match­ing as you gather more data.

  • Provide ex­ter­nal me­di­a­tion in the event of room­mate dis­putes, and have a rep­u­ta­tion sys­tem to en­courage good be­hav­ior.

You aren’t pro­vid­ing hous­ing as a ser­vice (like Airbnb), or com­pan­ion­ship as a ser­vice (like the peo­ple-walk­ing startup). You’re pro­vid­ing com­mu­nity as a ser­vice. You could even or­ga­nize mix­ers across your houses.

Conclusion

Tech­nol­ogy has been blamed for the loneli­ness epi­demic, but I think we can use tech­nol­ogy to cure the loneli­ness epi­demic as well.

I’m too busy be­ing ob­sessed with ma­chine learn­ing to start any com­pany which isn’t mostly about that. But I think this is a product the world needs, and I want you to build it. I en­courage you to sign the Founders Pledge and donate the money to effec­tive char­i­ties in case you ac­tu­ally end up mak­ing billions of dol­lars as a re­sult of read­ing this.

I apol­o­gize if you found the tone of this post overly sales-y. My goal was to light a spark in the right per­son. (Feel free to steal phrases from this post when pitch­ing in­vestors!)

Some folks in the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity might be a lit­tle un­der­whelmed by this idea, since peo­ple in the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity have been liv­ing to­gether in group houses for a long time. The thing is, find­ing room­mates by con­nect­ing based on mu­tual in­ter­ests via the in­ter­net is still kind of weird in the eyes of the gen­eral pub­lic. As Paul Gra­ham put it: “Live in the fu­ture, then build what’s miss­ing.” The ex­is­tence of so many lonely peo­ple proves that this op­tion is still miss­ing for most peo­ple.

Any­way, if you’re in­ter­ested in build­ing/​in­vest­ing in this, please com­ment be­low, or send me a pri­vate mes­sage via my user page with the coun­try you’re in and I’ll put you in con­tact with oth­ers who mes­sage me. (Edit: I might be slow to re­ply, sorry)

Cross-posted from the Effec­tive Altru­ism Fo­rum. See also dis­cus­sion on Hacker News.