It was near midnight, He Zhiwu recalls, when he first sprawled onto his bed in Shanghai, lifted his phone, and called a stranger.
He was using Soul, a phone and text-messaging app that first hit the market in 2015. In recent months, the app has grown in popularity among Chinese youth, who’ve made it one of the most popular social networking apps on China’s iPhone App Store. Unlike Tinder, Tantan, or Momo — three of China’s top dating apps — Soul users can’t see what each other looks like. Instead, the app matches users through a computer algorithm.
Among China’s romantically conservative, lonely, or socially awkward youth, the app is finding a receptive audience. Some users are even finding love.
“I’m a sensitive person,” says Wang Chun, 21, an aesthetician, explaining why she uses Soul. “When chatting with strangers, I don’t have to overthink their reactions.”
When He, 24, first moved to Shanghai, he barely knew anyone. He had trouble making friends, ate meals by himself, and often found himself sitting alone into the dark hours of the night. When a friend told him about an app that let users maintain conversations with strangers, he was curious.
Soul users, who go by the name “Soulers,” must first answer a series of questions about their personalities before selecting attributes from a predetermined list to describe themselves. Options range from “Brokenhearted” to “Playboy”; “OCD” to “Already Married.” The app claims its algorithm can pair users with others who supposedly match their personalities. Users can also share their own stories in a virtual news feed.
“Met a girl from Soul. Good-looking, but when she got into my car, I could smell she had bad breath,” reads one user’s post. “Kicked her out of the car and ate hot pot alone. Men are strange sometimes.”
Soul’s most popular function randomly pairs two of the app’s users for a voice call. Each user has three minutes to decide whether to reveal their identity. The app lets users report crude behavior, and they can hang up at any time.
User traffic peaks in the evening hours, around 10 p.m.
On his bed in Shanghai, He Zhiwu’s first few calls were awkward, but he soon matched with a Chinese man living in Singapore who seemed relatable enough. Both complained of feeling estranged and of having no one with whom to eat hot pot. The pair started messaging each other. He, back in Shanghai, decided to keep using the app.
Zhang Lu, a former consultant dissatisfied with how then-popular dating apps emphasized users’ appearances, founded Soul in 2015. Living in a city far from her hometown, Zhang felt lonely — and realized others did, too. She decided to create an app that could help alleviate the isolation. The app’s mission, as stated on its website, is to create “a world without lonely people.”
Soul has since secured A- and B-round funding. In an interview earlier this year, Qiu Yuyuan, a Soul company spokesperson, claimed the app boasts tens of millions of downloads and over 100 million daily messages. Overseas Chinese, far from family and friends, form a large part of its user base, and 70% of users are 23 or younger. (After being cited for inappropriate content earlier this summer, Soul implemented stricter age requirements to ensure users are at least 18 years of age and instituted a youth mode for younger audiences.)
“Other apps for chatting with strangers are more Westernized, more focused on appearances, more hookup-centric,” says Qiu. Soul set out to reverse this mindset. “Our app starts from a person’s values.”
Jeffrey Towson, a professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management, says Soul is trying something not yet seen among messaging apps. “Soul takes an AI-first approach. AI will choose your friends, not you.”
“That’s so weird, it just might work,” he says.
Several of the users I interviewed mentioned downloading the app, using it for a few days, then quitting. Not He.
After a few conversations on the app, He matched with a young woman about his age. He originally intended to interview her for a project he was working on, but after a few minutes, the conversation strayed. Her voice enchanted him. They talked until 3 a.m.
Over the following weeks, they talked about their days and shared pictures of their lives. He recorded and sent her a song. Then — gradually, hesitatingly — they began to share photos of themselves, too. He was happy when he saw her picture. “She looked like I imagined,” he says.
“We’re not exactly boyfriend-girlfriend,” says He, sheepishly. “I guess it’s internet love. I’ve never had this experience before.”
The pair lives almost 1,000 miles away from each other, or about the distance from Los Angeles to Denver.
Qiu, Soul’s spokesperson, insists that romantic matches are only a “small portion” of Soul’s overall mission.
“We seek to meet the loneliness needs of our users,” she says.
Yet, late last December, shortly before young Chinese were due to return home for Lunar New Year — and to questions about their love lives from curious parents and relatives — Soul unveiled “Love Bell,” a new function for finding romantic matches.
Users still can’t see pictures of each other. But it’s not entirely anonymous. To unlock the function, they must first enable location services.
To some critics, Soul is beginning to resemble a traditional dating app. More and more users are looking for romantic partners.
But for many lonely young people, the app remains a haven for uninhibited self-expression.
“Nothing to do, no friends beside me, every night I play video games, I still have no money. I hope that when I forget you, I’ll recover who I once was,” wrote one user.
“Me too,” replied another user.
“I feel you,” replied another.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: E+/VCG)