Making Friends in the Pandemic Era: The Boons and Banes of a Student Chatbot

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If you’ve been lurking on Reddit and social media these days, I’m sure the term ‘chatbot’ isn’t unfamiliar to you. But what comes to mind when you see the term ‘chatbot’? For me, I wonder about meeting new people on a platform without having to step out of my house (especially during Circuit Breaker and Heightened Alert); what I also imagine is meeting new people by simply tapping some buttons on my phone, or maybe even meeting new people on an anonymous platform.

As for most users, I’m sure these are common notions as well. 

I recall the day I first stumbled across the NUSChatbot — I was mindlessly scrolling through Reddit and this initiative caught my eye. Being an inquisitive individual, I dug around Reddit and was stunned by the sheer number of chatbots we had — there was a chatbot for almost every university. From the NUSChatbot, to NTUChatbot, and even the SUTDxSITChatbot, it seems that the creator has a chatbot for every school. And judging by how the post currently stands at 441 upvotes on Reddit, the Chatbot appears to be well-received by the student body. However, what exactly is the appeal of such Chatbots, and how have they worked out for the student body? 

What is the NUS Chatbot?

The Chatbot was founded by Aalden Tnay, a Y1 NUS student. Intended for students to connect and make friends within the same school, it was launched before the start of the new academic year. Its user interface is familiar and easy – students can launch the Telegram Chatbot to get matched and linked up with others.

Beyond just making friends, some students have met seniors of the same course, wherein seniors could share tips and advice on surviving university. In fact, I was matched with a few seniors from my course! They were open to sharing their experiences with me, which I was grateful for. 

Why are we fascinated by the Chatbot? 

Now that that’s been said, let’s explore an overlooked yet vital question. Why are people fascinated by the Chatbot? Well, one obvious answer is this — COVID-19.

In light of the pandemic, establishing online relationships seems safer and easier for both parties. Think about it; a few clicks on a phone and one can be propelled into a whole new world of socialising. This comes without the need to travel out at all. 

Furthermore, the volatile COVID-19 rules have pushed people to stay indoors more often. But let’s face it: I’m sure we’ve all craved social intimacy and interaction at some point during the pandemic. The Chatbot’s biggest appeal was that it served as a platform to connect with people, albeit virtually. In a way, it satiated the emptiness we had from the lack of social interaction.

Moreover, with everyone staying indoors (working from home and having online school), the Chatbot has proved to be a great way to kill time. It practically functions like any other social media platform; but instead of scrolling through TikTok or Instagram, one can hop onto the Chatbot to start conversations just as freely. Truth be told, whenever I had time to spare, I would utilise it to chat with others to pass time. 

Putting COVID-19 aside (for once), the chatbot has presented itself as a great way to make online friends. For introverts, like myself, the chatbot eased the process of befriending. Social interactions appeared less intimidating, and I had more time to think and respond to replies. It made the befriending experience less taxing on my social battery, which I appreciated. This is especially so due to the anonymity feature. This feature stripped away all the anxiety I had when I replied to someone late. Without having to stress over the impression others had of me, ironically, I felt more comfortable on the Chatbot. And I’m sure most of my fellow introverts can relate to this! 

Investing time in Chatbots… Yay or nay?  

Well, up till this point, the prospect sounds rather bright and rosy. However, let’s scratch beneath the surface. How well has the chatbot actually worked out for its users? To learn about this, I’ve spoken to one of my friends who has gladly shared her experience. 

Q: Do you find the Chatbot effective in finding friends? 

A: Overall, I think it’s a good way to find friends. Using the Chatbot has allowed me to step out of my comfort zone by connecting with strangers. It helped me meet friends, and they gave me a kick start in my university life. Some have helped me by sharing about the registration process, where to find my Outlook email and even how to use LumiNUS. 

Q: Have you made any genuine friends from the Chatbot? 

A: I’ve only made 1 genuine friend but we have not met in real life! Being in completely different majors and modules, it was tough to meet up. We chatted anonymously on the Chatbot for 2 months before exchanging names and Instagram accounts. 

Q: Lastly, why did you use the Chatbot?

A: Actually, I used it out of curiosity. Upon recommendations from a non-NUS friend, I was interested in how it worked. Hence, I decided to test it out for myself! 

Personal thoughts

While that was my friend’s positive experience, this can differ from person to person. I believe that luck plays a huge role in this. For me, due to my ‘unluckiness’, most of my conversations on the chatbot were often short-lived. Moreover, as this ‘service’ incurs zero cost, if things don’t work out, users can simply ‘end’ the conversation and move on to a new ‘match.’ This inadvertently causes the Chatbot to be a ‘cheap thrill’. Additionally, the possibilities are endless on these types of ‘swipeable’ platforms; users can always unmatch and match to meet more people should they get ‘tired’ or ‘bored’ with their current ‘match.’ This seems to be the experience for many users, and to be frank, I, too, am guilty of misusing these platforms as a way to pass time since I mostly stay indoors during the pandemic. 

A bigger issue is that the chatbot could unintentionally ‘devalue’ relationships. By having nothing to lose, some users simply keep ‘ending’ conversations as they know they can always find another person to chat with. This greatly belittles the value of relationships, so much so to the extent that some people find relationships ‘cheap.’ As such, it is no surprise that we see tons of posts on uWave* and Reddit commenting about how people can’t sustain conversations and establish genuine relationships through the chatbot. 

Now, I am not saying that my chatbot experiences were wholly negative. Neither am I trying to portray the chatbot in a bad light, nor attack the creator of the chatbot. In fact, I’m thankful for the chatbot — I’ve even managed to befriend a senior from a different course before stepping into NUS! We’ve been talking almost daily since June. To my pleasant surprise, we became so comfortable with each other that we met for meals thrice. She even celebrated my birthday with me.  

As it seems, I’ve had my fair share of hits and misses on the chatbot. With my ‘high retention rate’ of one in ten people, I do believe that having a pleasant experience ultimately boils down to luck. Although it would be nice to have a higher ‘retention rate’, I don’t blame anyone for how the chatbot panned out for me, and I hope that others do the same! 

Last but not least: to the people who’ve had a futile experience — just know that you’re not alone and that it is totally okay to have mismatches! Don’t lose steam and keep trying. With an upcoming launch of the second version, who knows, you might be as lucky as my friend and me to find a true friend from the platform!

*Note: UWave is an all-in-one campus app that has services ranging from campus discussions, student discounts, and even module reviews. They often host giveaways with prizes like the Apple watch and Ergotune Supreme chair to be won.