Many of us have heard of online dating sites, which single men and women use to help find partners for themselves. I know couples who have met online and chatted there for a while, before moving the relationship into the offline domain to carry on relationships that culminated in marriage.

Dating sites have also become breeding grounds for controversy. The US’s Federal Bureau of Investigation has warned people against criminals who lurk on such sites. Criminals use made-up identities and lure unsuspecting users into online relationships. These then follow a fairly predictable pattern, with requests for assistance in the form of money and can sometimes progress into other forms of extortion, where unsuspecting users are lured into intimate conversations and sharing photographs, which criminals then use to blackmail them by threatening to release these intensely private exchanges and label their victims as “immoral" or as “cheaters".

Scarier still have been the hackers, who have hacked into such sites and siphoned off the personal data of millions of users and then proceeded to leak highly sensitive personal information onto the internet. These are more prevalent with sites that were explicitly set up to allow couples to discreetly stray from their marriages or other similar social contracts without fear of their infidelity being exposed. The hackers who broke into Ashley Madison and Adult Friend-Finder are an example of such preying on victims. Evidently, there is also a thriving black market for such data on the “Dark Web".

Thankfully, some of the founders of such sites have seen that their platforms can also be used for good. Last week, I met Siddharth Mangharam, one of the founders of a site called Floh. Mangharam explained that Floh had been originally set up as a site for singles, but had quickly morphed into a site that allows for people to connect—both online and in person—on a variety of shared interests, as well as on a variety of shared weaknesses or disadvantages.

There has been plenty of talk recently about the claim that thanks to screen addiction, social media envy and increased stress, people feel lonely and depressed. The big issue surrounding social media is not privacy. It’s that social media firms are feeding on this epidemic of loneliness and social isolation. The western world has begun to react to this. Besides regulating social media, governments are trying to effect change on the ground. For instance, UK Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a minister for loneliness in January 2018.

Mangharam offered up factoids to back this claim. Most striking was one piece of data from The Atlantic that indirectly, but stunningly captures kids’ growing isolation: since 2007, the homicide rate among US teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased. As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another and more likely to kill themselves. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.

Like other dating sites, Floh started as a community exclusively for singles. Mangharam claims that over 1,400 of Floh’s members used it to find a life partner and get married. Over time, feedback from members suggested that Floh could mean more than finding a partner and it evolved into a “trusted" support group for members who share similar life experiences. Floh now supports groups where people seek out others, who are experiencing similar life circumstances. The focus is on in-person meetings, which are a refreshing change from online social networks. According to Mangharam, these groups have gone on trips, formed book clubs, regularly play sports together—and have even co-founded companies.

This is especially useful when it comes to serving people who are suffering from certain types of diseases or from conditions or preferences that cause them to be socially ostracized. Mangharam’s team has created—and curates—distinct communities for audiences including singles, expectant mothers, cancer survivors and thalassemia patients. Members of each community meet and connect at interactive events that Floh organizes for them.

Companionship is a basic human need that is not based solely on romance.

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India.

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