Managing Your Friendships, With Software

A slew of new start-ups want to help people manage their relationships the way they would sales leads. Should we be worried about our friends turning us into data points?

Two women on a sofa; one is holding a phone.
10'000 Hours / Getty

“I want a dating app where all I can see is the person’s metadata,” the poet Noel Black tweeted Monday. It reminded me of a passage in the fashion and culture critic Natasha Stagg’s new book, in which she confesses: “I want to organize the people I know. I feel simultaneously like I miss every person I’ve ever met, and like I could go without seeing any of them again.” It also reminded me of a college friend who kept a spreadsheet of boys she’d kissed (organized by frat), the Google Calendar invite I sent my former roommate so we wouldn’t forget to have a conversation next Thursday, and the recent mini-boom in “personal CRM” apps.

CRM stands for “customer relationship management,” and it is a horrifically boring category of software. It was popularized in the late ’90s and early 2000s as a way of keeping track of all the ways an individual customer interacts with a business, and of systematically maintaining contact with that customer over years and years. (Salesforce is a CRM, as is HubSpot. Mailchimp also includes quite a few CRM features in its email-marketing service.) A personal CRM is the same thing, but for your personal life—networking, dating, making new friends, making friends with people who could also turn out to be valuable professional connections, going on dates with people who turned out to be useless professional connections.

The most recent class of start-ups to come out of the prestigious Y Combinator accelerator program included three such companies, Axios reported in August, under the headline “Startups’ New Frontier: Optimizing Your Friendships.” In fact, there are so many personal-CRM apps, you might need a spreadsheet to keep track of all their names and taglines—each a little remix of the others, contorting adorably around the limitations of the friendship-software vocabulary to say, ultimately, the same chilling thing.

There’s Dex, “a tool to turn acquaintances into allies.” Clay, “an extension of your brain, purposefully built to help you remember people.” “Forgetting personal details?” Hippo “helps you stay attentive [and] keep track of friends, family and colleagues you care for,” for just $1.49 a month. Plum Contacts sends reminders to message your friends, and rewards you with cartoon berries that “indicate how strong your relationship is.” “Build the relationships you always wish you had,” the UpHabit site promises.

There are more! “When life gets busy, sometimes we need to be reminded to enjoy our most meaningful relationships,” the creators of Garden write on their website. “Your relationships are secured for today!” the activity-completion page on Ryze announces once you’ve taken care of all your “following up.” Ntwrk promises to make its users into better friends, mentors, siblings, salespeople, and networkers; reminders to reach out also come with a summary of “what you last chatted about.” Social Contact Journal provides anniversary reminders and prewritten message templates.

While many of the apps have an explicit professional-networking utility, the Irish company Monaru, one of the Y Combinator companies, is focused specifically on users’ 10 to 15 closest relationships. Not only will Monaru remind you of a loved one’s birthday, but it will also suggest specific gifts to buy her. It can help you plan a date night, or remember to call your parents regularly. “Millennials are four times lonelier than seniors,” the company’s homepage reads, probably erroneously. The service costs $20 a month, and its tagline is “Be the most thoughtful person you know.” (The creators declined to be interviewed, saying they were “heads down” on the product.)

The idea of people as self-contained collections of data points is not a new one—the Quantified Self movement has been booming and busting since 2007. The idea of offloading your brain into a computer is not new either, though it’s a little more controversial now that we’re more aware of what happens to our personal information after we do so. But quantifying other people is different, and mediating relationships with software isn’t a purely personal decision.

All these apps released their first version in 2018 or 2019 (though Monaru is in private beta and Clay has a waitlist). They appear in the “Productivity” section of the App Store. They are, on their surface, another blurring of work and life, another viral tweet about how modern life is like a dystopian Mad Lib, and while you can fill in whatever nouns you like, the overarching story will be about exploitation, isolation, and capitalism run wild. Is that all they are?

“Sometimes I feel paralyzed by the thought of unstructured, unmediated interaction with friends,” the Real Life editor Rob Horning wrote in September. “There are times when I think about reaching out to someone who I haven’t talked to in a while but then look at their social media profiles and feel sated.”

If you talk with people who use apps to organize their friendships, they’ll tell you that this is exactly the kind of malaise they’re combatting.

Stéfano Demari, an UpHabit user who works in finance and lives in Paris, emailed me: “On one side, technology has taken a big part of our personal lives. On another side, the most brilliant and nicest people [have] always set up notes not to forget to reach out to the ones they care about.” Joan Westenberg, an Australian writer and publicist, uses HubSpot and keeps detailed notes about everyone she knows. (“If I’m seeing one of my friends, I shouldn’t wear my spider earrings as they make her arachnophobia uncomfortable.”) Having a database to look at makes her feel less alone, she told me. And it helps her to organize her time so that she can be literally alone less.

Some people are using jerry-rigged personal CRMs, even if they wouldn’t call them that. Daniel Salgado, a journalist from Rio de Janeiro, says he made a spreadsheet of all his friends early last year, adding notes about activities to do together and when he’d last seen them. If the friendship was going strong, he color-coded the cell green. If they hadn’t interacted in a while, he changed it to orange. And if it’d been a really long time, the cell would become red, and then he’d have to decide if the person should even count as a friend anymore.

“Eventually I dropped the [activity] suggestions tab,” Salgado says. “I thought it was a little crazy. I know these people; I don’t need to be reminded of what I like to do with them. If I’m at that point, I shouldn’t use it.” Still, he finds the colors helpful. “If I look at my friend’s name and it’s orange I think, Okay, I need to be there for them. I’m kind of being a bad friend.”

But when he told some of the people on the list about it, they didn’t care what color they were coded—it was the list’s very existence that they said signals something awry in a friendship.“They were bothered because I transformed our friendship into something on a Google Docs and not something that was lived,” he says. “They don’t like the mediation of technology helping our friendship growing stronger.”

Another spreadsheet maker, Carl—who is 33, works for the U.S. Foreign Service, and asked to be referred to by first name only, because he works for the government—said his friends were split when he told them about his organizational system. Some thought his lists were “clinical” or “strange”; others used the language of self-care to talk about being “intentional” with maintaining relationships.

“I was like, Okay, who do I enjoy? Who makes me feel better? Do I feel lighter after I’ve hung out with someone, or do I feel like I’ve put in a ton of energy?” he explained. But that system made him feel too neurotic, so he pared it down to “When did I see someone? How many times in a particular month or particular quarter have I seen someone?” Then he could sort the list, and decide whom he wasn’t paying enough attention to, or whom he was paying too much attention to. “It feels really arch-capitalist and terrible to say, but I saved the spreadsheet kind of ironically as ‘social CRM’ because I used to use CRM software at work at one of my old jobs,” Carl told me. His was in Excel; he had not heard the term personal CRM.

The litter of companies racing to monetize and name what people are already doing will need to erase the stigma of doing it. And that term—personal CRM—is part of the problem. Relabeling our friends and family as our “customers” is not something most of us would do out loud.

Dex’s founder, Kevin Sun, is already aware of this. “I’ve been back and forth on whether the acronym CRM makes sense in this case,” he told me during a phone call. “I keep using it, because it’s been around for a while.” People know what it means; personal-relationship manager sounds vague and maybe even weirder.

Personal CRMs, or whatever you want to call them, are on the rise this year for several reasons, all of which Sun can name. We have broader networks now, and they’re digitally mediated: “For a lot of relationships, you can trace their path through your calendar events and communications,” he said. “You can keep pretty good records of who you met and how you met.” We are compelled by software that promises to make us more “productive and effective,” which is why Asana, Evernote, Airtable, Slack, and the like have become so popular in professional spaces, and then been repurposed as personal tools. And of course—this part isn’t new at all—some people just don’t think they’re very good at relationships, and they want to be better.

The type of person who would spend money every month on an app like this is probably someone who feels she doesn’t have much free time, or that he’s scrubbed at the line between work and life more than he intended to, and needs something that will help him set things in order. You could argue that turning the people in one’s life into items on a to-do list only workifies life even further, and that the other systems we have for organizing and representing our relationships—Instagram, Facebook, their predecessors—caused much of our anxiety about whether we are well liked and social enough in the first place. Or you could find yourself at the point where you’re willing to try anything.

Sun started the company after he noticed that people he knew were using—surprise!—spreadsheets to make sense of their friendships. And he thought he could make them a good alternative. According to Tarek Jisr, the marketing manager for the personal CRM UpHabit, every company in the category has the same primary competitor: spreadsheets.

Jackie, a 25-year-old Californian who works in film and asked to be referred to by only her first name for professional reasons, walked me through a couple of her spreadsheets over the phone. The first she ever made was a list of crushes, in college. There were about 30 of them: some real-life acquaintances, some celebrities, some former crushes assigned to a “crush graveyard.” They were ranked on a scale from zero to 100 in metrics including “personality,” “snuggability,” “assumed coolness,” and “magnetism,” with personality weighted the heaviest. Almost everyone who’s on the list knows about it, Jackie said, though the celebrity crushes (Paul Thomas Anderson, for one) probably do not.

To Jackie, riffing on “seemingly mundane things” is a good way to have fun in a boring environment—like sitting in front of a computer, which is what plenty of us do all the time. “Google Drive is a big part of my life in general. Spreadsheets are always around,” she explained. And crushes are the perfect thing to sort and quantify, because they are always a little bit of a joke, and always extremely serious.

She emailed me a few screenshots of her other spreadsheets.“Something that I want to flag is that like so many things in our ~modern world~ I do these somewhat in jest and somewhat in earnest,” she wrote. “I don’t use it in a dystopian way to erase qualitative characteristics of people, but I do use it as an organizational tool.” Spreadsheets with personality metrics are helpful for figuring out “what groups of people would vibe,” she argued. She can plan better parties that way. She used to worry about getting “canceled” by her friends because of the scoring system in her sheets, but they told her not to worry about it, because they know they’ll always score highly. On one sheet, made for organizing a birthday outing with a very specific theme, one of the columns was “Likeliness to not understand this [spreadsheet],” and those people were axed from the guest list immediately.

It’s not clear how well any of the personal-CRM companies will do financially, particularly because most of them rely on paid memberships. (And you should be wary of the free ones.) Each of the apps mentioned in this article has fewer than 1,000 Android downloads in the Google Play store right now; in the iOS App Store, UpHabit has the most downloads of its ilk: about 5,000. Google could obviously make a much more popular version of any of these products quite easily, given that it already kind of does with Google Sheets. Personal-CRM software could be a quick-burning fad, or it could be a conversation we keep having until everyone’s using it and we have to stop pretending it’s so strange—I remember being upset that Facebook provided all of my friends with a cheat sheet, making it impossible to know who could actually remember my birthday without a prompt. Before that, it was sad to admit that the rise of cellphones meant I didn’t have phone numbers memorized anymore.

“For most people, there is a cost of authenticity when you mediate with software,” Sun told me. The question, then, is whether the benefits pay it back. The obvious answer is no, but I think I would love to be added to a spreadsheet, or synced into an app. It’s so hard to know whom you’re important to anyway—it could be nice to be listed at least, labeled a priority.