Kindly app lets strangers bond briefly over troubles

The Kindly smartphone app helps strangers connect to talk about their troubles

I'm hunched over my iPhone, texting with a stranger I know only as "NJ."

I'm soliciting career advice. I love my work, I peck out, but sometimes wonder if I should be more strategic, have a grand plan.

This conversation is being facilitated by Kindly, a smartphone app that pairs users for anonymous chats about the troubles on their minds. A timer at the top of my screen counts down 15 minutes, the allotted time for each chat — though I could extend the conversation or follow up later by sending NJ a "friend request."

It's a novel concept for a social network. Whereas Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are built on real-life ties, however tenuous, Kindly seeks to connect strangers bound only by a desire to share everyday problems.

"I don't know if this app would've succeeded five years ago, because every chat would've been about sex," said Jordan Walker, chief executive and co-founder of Kindly. "But now, Tinder and Hinge exist. People go there to have those conversations."

Walker, 32, says Kindly was inspired by his own loneliness after a divorce.

"You can have 2,000 friends on Facebook, but on a Tuesday night at 10, you … want to talk to someone about what's bugging you and might not know who to reach out to," he said. "That's where we're trying to come in."

Kindly has about 6,000 users, Walker says. That includes people signed up as designated "listeners" and those looking for a sympathetic ear. There's no screening process, though the app asks advice seekers to rate listeners with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down after chatting.

John Grohol, a psychologist and founder and chief executive of the mental health website Psych Central, questions the value of outsourcing one's emotional well-being to random strangers.

"Typically, when we want to vent our feelings ... [it's] going be most useful if we're doing it with someone whose opinion we value," he said. "Kindly is sort of a non sequitur in the social networking world. It feels to me like an artificial interaction, created because it could be created."

I can't say I don't know what he means.

After I aired my work worries to NJ, I got a question in response: "Are you young?" NJ asked. "If you're young, it's OK to have some uncertainty." Then, NJ revealed that he — she? — is 24 and has similar concerns.

I confessed I'm over 30.

NJ came back with: "Just follow your passion."

I immediately felt ridiculous. In real life, I'd never seek career guidance from someone two years out of college. When I told Walker about this, he urged me to look at it from a different angle.

"Of course, this happens," he said. "Sometimes you don't connect with someone that offers anything ... but maybe they can offer one little point of wisdom. There's a bit of serendipity involved here."

Perhaps.

I told NJ that I am following my passion, more or less.

But before an answer appeared, the 15 minutes finished counting down and I was back to pondering my path alone.

health@latimes.com

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