Alone Together: Companionship in a Solo World

Published in
10 min readAug 16, 2019


I. A Solo World

You’ve probably heard by now that we’re in a “loneliness crisis.” And certainly the numbers seem to confirm it — a 2018 study found that 9% of adults in Japan, 22% in America and 23% in Britain say they always or often feel lonely, lack companionship, or feel left out or isolated.

And with record numbers of single-person households globally, and the rise of remote working — which 50% of us worldwide now do half the week — we’re leading more solo lives.

So how is this cultural shift — coined ‘Soloism’ by Backslash — changing the nature of both being alone and being together? And what does it mean for business?

Backslash set out to explore this cultural tension through a documentary, infographic and this essay.

We consulted Cat Moore, Director of Belonging at the University of Southern California, who teaches students and organizations alike how to make meaningful relationships the bottom line. And we interviewed 3 individuals — a Danish teenage girl who learned how to make friends through a pioneering loneliness project and now teaches other teens; a Texan single father who built a support network (and love of startled cats) on Reddit; and a Californian robotics entrepreneur trying to create alternative relationships that have never existed before — each with their own story to tell about modern companionship, captured in our film.

Alone Together Infographic created by Backslash

Yes, loneliness is a real — and even deadly — issue, but it’s not the full story.

Being alone is not the same as being lonely.

The scientific definition of loneliness is “a feeling of distress produced by the perception that one’s social needs are not being met.”

In Western culture, we automatically equate being alone with being lonely. We’ve created a narrative starting from childhood that being alone is sad, something to avoid, and life is all about our relationships with others. But the need to be alone and to engage with others are both essential to human happiness and survival, psychologists say.

Social media has made us more uncomfortable being alone and feeling socially restless and unsatiated. And therefore more susceptible to the perception we are lonely. As psychologist Melissa Sporn has said, “Online activities hits us twice, once as a distraction and/or substitution for real social interaction and then again as a representation via social media of all the things we aren’t doing and should be engaged in, thus leaving us feeling lonely and FOMO.”

But are we starting to be embrace aloneness?

Things that we used to do together, we are now doing solo. Take eating out. Reservations for one have increased 160% since 2014 in the UK, according to OpenTable. Solo dining is an empowering trend we’re seeing across Europe and the US too, breaking social taboo.

And it’s not just dining. It’s travel. It’s parenting. It’s going to the movies. Solo.

In the world’s largest study on loneliness by the BBC, over 80% of people stated that they enjoyed spending time on their own. Only 33% believed that loneliness is about being on your own.

As the idea of aloneness evolves, so too does our idea of companionship.

II: Modern Companionship: The 3R’s

Companionship looks different today.

Because it is different.

Yet we judge modern relationships, communities and support networks through a traditional, physical, fixed lens.

Like aloneness, companionship is fluid, adapting to new eras, new problems, new lifestyles, a range of new perspectives. Companionship has become a dynamic, customizable concept.

As Professor Cat Moore says, “I see companionship moving in a couple of different directions. It’s both getting really deep with a normalized number of people that we can actually stay in contact with. Whilst there’s also a desire to break out of our echo chambers and understand each other’s differences. I think it’s healthiest when we have lots of different kinds of connections.”

Today we are marrying ourselves, parenting our plants and creating memories with robots.

From our research, we’ve identified three key forms of Modern Companionship: The 3R’s, which we bring to life in our documentary.


People are harnessing the power of the internet to find their tribe, join mass movements and share their lives whenever, wherever, remotely.

“Every time I’m feeling down and feeling alone, and I’ve worn out my friends who are tired of hearing about it, I might make a post asking for advice. You can always depend on Reddit.You make ‘stranger friends.’”

— Dennis Martin, Member of Daddit Thread

Where are we seeing this?

Benkyou Douga: Kids are getting hooked watching fellow students and sometimes YouTube stars quietly study for as long as an hour at a time. The phenomena known as “Benkyou Douga” or “Study-clips” started in Japan but has now gone global. Much like the Korean “Mukbang” trend of watching strangers eat, or watching others game on Twitch, Benkyou Douga is voyeuristic and seems to respond to a need to socialize alone time. Today, we can be friends with whomever we want as long as one of us is watching.


Remote companionship is characterized by a desire for the voyeuristic, omnipresent and hyper-contextual.


Why find love when you can buy it? Living and technological surrogates like robots, pets and plants are providing alternatives to human relationships in our lives without the typical demands and emotional risk.

“This is all about creating something new and exciting that creates the alternative form of relationship that never existed before.” — Matt McMullen, Founder & CEO of RealDoll and Realbotix

Where are we seeing this?

Plant Parents: Millennials are turning to apartment- and Instagram-friendly plants in place of pets or children. One of the most popular hashtags #plantmom has been used over 400K times. As young people veer from home ownership and child-rearing, they’re looking for alternatives for their time, money and care. ‘Plant Parents’ can spend up to $200 per plant and many refer to them as children and give them names. It’s disrupting the staid plant industry, with start-ups like The Sill creating Plant Parent membership clubs in response.


Replacement companionship allows us to control the cost, commitment and convenience of alternative relationships.


The rise of local community groups, communal living and work space and rent-a-person services, revives opportunities for human companionship eroded by modern realities.

“We do all the things young people do with their friends. We eat together, shop, cook, and do the dishes. We play board games, go for walk, and sometimes we sit and just chat.” — Rilo Rud, Head of Office, Ventilen

Where are we seeing this?

RentAFriend: There are over 600,000 friends available to rent through RentAFriend. Starting at $10/hour, customers can rent another human to join them at the movies, grab a drink or even help them to meet other people. A host of similar services offer mums, uncles and grandparents who can provide advice, emotional support and a sense of family. Rental companions respond to our need for deeper, real-life, person-to-person connection.


Revival companionship brings back human, local and physical social structures in a modern way.

Matt McMullen, Founder & CEO of RealDoll and Realbotix

III: The Aloneness Economy

Aloneness is a new commercial opportunity.

We have identified 3 different strategies that can do good for society and for business by either embracing aloneness, bringing the alone together, or creating modern communities.

Strategy 1. Embrace Aloneness

Flip the script that says aloneness is something to avoid. Create a new narrative that champions its normality, healthiness as part of a balanced lifestyle, even luxury, and start designing for the ‘Solo Customer.’


In Japan, the rise of the Solo Customer is so widespread it has its own name: ohitorisama, or “on your own.” Every business wants their business. You’ll see signs of ohitorisama everywhere — from cinemas offering seats with partitions, theme parks that let singles jump the queue, to grocery stores selling food designed for single diners.

Every business should ask itself, What is the solo version of my product? And how can I invent and anticipate entirely new markets for audiences of one?

Solitude is the New Luxury

Silent retreats are all the rage amongst Silicon Valley moguls like Jack Dorsey right now. Meditation, sleep and off-grid industries are all booming. In a world where social connection is always on and commodified to the point of parody by Influencers, solitude is becoming a new luxury. Solitude is an elegant way of flipping aloneness that takes us to a place of wellness and aspiration where businesses can unlock premium value.

There is an opportunity to premiumize the way we value aloneness through semiotics and customer propositions that channel the benefits of solitude, silence, privacy, self-care, freedom or hyper-personalization.

Solo Penalties

Normalizing and capitalizing on aloneness will also require businesses to stop doing things that penalize Solo Customers. Single-occupancy charges in the hospitality industry for starters. Discrimination against freelance workers trying to access loans and mortgages in the finance industry. Standard family-size food that creates waste and extra cost. Businesses are still designing for an outdated 2.4 family paradigm.

To recruit and retain the Solo Customer, turn penalties into rewards.

Rilo Rud, Head of Office, Ventilen

Strategy 2. Socialize Solo

Bring the alone together, by making solo experiences social.

Flexible Aloneness

Solo Travel is on the rise. 1 in 4 people planned to holiday alone last year, according to a US study. Interestingly, 60% of people who travel alone are in a relationship and say their main motivation is “me-time,” according to a British survey, signaling a desire for temporary aloneness. Communities where Solo Travelers can access support and connect with others at points during their journey are growing. ‘Wanderful’ is a social network that connects solo female travelers and offers a verified list of home-sharing. More hyper-contextual groups such as ‘The Blonde Abroad Travel Tribe’ and ‘Black Girls Travel Too’ are emerging as Solo Travel socializes.

Businesses can provide a range of flexible opportunities for solo customers to connect with others on their own terms and build the social benefits of safety, cost and support into going it alone.

Alone, Together

Tech brands are starting to build more social interaction into their typically solo offerings. Spotify is reportedly working on a new feature called Social Listening, which would allow friends to collaborate on music queues and listen to them together in real time. The feature could enable synchronized ‘global listening parties.’ Similarly, Headspace now offers an ‘Everybody Headspace’ feature where your solitary meditation can become a live group experience.

Bringing the “alone” together creates new types of social and/or solo experiences that blur the lines between the two. And importantly, help distinguish between being alone and being lonely by creating a perception of togetherness.

Shared Space

Two companies are leading the way in bringing singletons together at home and at work. WeWork’s founder Miguel McKelvey has said his company isn’t simply “building a work space.” Instead, it’s “building a new infrastructure to rebuild social fabric and rebuild up the potential for human connection.” WeWork sells the benefits of autonomy as part of a community: “A place you join as an individual ‘me’ but where you become part of a greater ‘we.’” WeWork was recently valued at $47 billion. Similarly, Tribe is a new co-living space in New York. It targets residents, many of whom are recent transplants to the city, with the duality of joining an existing community, yet having their own private space.

The rise of remote working is one that all businesses need to strategize for. Creating spaces designed to enhance and flex to both the benefits of working solo and collaboratively is the next big challenge for office design and HR.

Strategy 3. Modern Communities

Great brands bring people together. Fill the void in physical, local communities by becoming one yourself.

Community Stores

Apple has reimagined its stores as ‘Town Squares.’ People are invited to use them more like a public space for free Wi-Fi, hanging out with friends or taking a class designed for real-life social interaction, such as Photo Walks, where groups of strangers can learn photography skills together while better exploring their city (and Apple product). The tech giant’s retail stores consistently top the rankings for highest earnings per square foot of real estate.

As governments sell off public spaces and retail stores struggle with e-commerce, there’s an opportunity to reimagine community spaces and the role of brands.

Brand Cults

The cycling brand Rapha has built a community of cyclists known as the Rapha Cycle Club (RCC), who ride together in their city and travel to summits around the world. Each chapter has local organizers, shared symbols, a code of conduct that ensures respect between diverse members, and a uniform (optional and Rapha branded of course). The Wellness industry understands how to build brand communities better than anyone right now, as Soul Cycle and Goop demonstrate too.

Successful brand communities are built around a shared passion between users, facilitated by the brand. The ones that are dominating the culture right now respond to our need for deeper, real-life, person-to-person connection.

Uniting the Divided

Arguably, the biggest challenge facing businesses and governments in bringing people together is not connecting like-minded individuals, but diverse, often polarized groups in respectful, collaborative spaces. This is what Airbnb did when it launched in Cuba. Two communities and two political ideologies — a division going back 50 years. Following Obama’s historic shift in US policy towards Cuba allowing for some American travel and trade, Airbnb launched a campaign inviting Americans into the homes of over 1,000 Cubans. An iconic print campaign likened the expansion to landing on the moon — both countries’ flags planted on the moon: “One giant leap for man’s kindness. The doors to 1,000 real Cuban homes are now open to you.” Instead of the obvious travel messaging of ‘discover something new,’ Airbnb made a more powerful statement and invited people to ‘Belong Anywhere.’ Cuba is the fastest-growing market in Airbnb’s history.

Brands that seek to be today’s icons for unity and diversity need to go to the difficult areas.

IV. Conclusion

Being alone. Being together.

They’ve changed, they’ve collided and they’re evolving.

Judging them through a traditional lens misses their positives, and their unmistakable opportunity.

Which is to embrace aloneness. And distinguish it from loneliness.

In this Solo world, there will be increasing new ways to find companionship and community. And brands will need to play a role.

But it is the deepening of these relationships — and our relationship with ourselves — that will unlock the benefits for individuals, society and business.

To learn more about our report click here to see the report on our website.




Translating cultural blur into business opportunity.