Is social media hindering our ability to meet new people?

Will Lutz not only believes it, he’s lived it. He’s also doing something about it with a Pittsburgh-based app called SitWith, a tool that randomly brings four strangers together at a time for an old-fashioned luncheon.

As Lutz explains it, he’s 28 and part of a generation that was socially sidelined by Facebook. The site went nationwide the year he entered his freshman year of college.

So during his college years, when his generation was supposed to be hanging around in dorm rooms and meeting other people, students were instead tethered to their computers, caught up in a maelstrom of digital friending.

“When you friend someone on Facebook, chances are it’s someone you already know, not a new person,” Lutz points out. “As a result, we were connecting with people around us less and connecting with our high school friends more.”

Lutz, a student at CMU’s Tepper, and his running buddy Patrick Morse, a Ph.D. candidate in social and personality psychology at California University Riverside, took the matter in hand with SitWith. The company is among the most recent AlphaLab startups at Innovation Works.

Here’s how it works. Once you sign up with SitWith, a location pops up with a suggested date and time. All you know is where you are going to eat. Lunches are arranged totally by random.

No names are given. It is not a dating service or a meetup.

“Our generation doesn’t go to rotaries and church meetings,” he says. “We are going to do for friendships what online dating did for relationships. “

Lutz also believes that people spend too much time engineering their interactions with others. Before people meet, they often check each other out online, read their Twitter feed and form an opinion that isn’t based on the real person.

“I want people to get out from behind their computers and talk to each other. After the lunch, you can walk away.”

Restaurants pay SitWith a subscription fee and in return they are promised that a certain number of people will show up every month for lunch.

SitWith is being rolled out in Pittsburgh. Lunches take place at the Union Grill, Harris Grill and Sharp Edge downtown.

“There’s definitely a foodie component to conversation that we haven’t fleshed out yet,” he says.

It’s not a new idea. Tea With Strangers in San Francisco is among the other successful location based ideas.

The question, of course, arises—what about the creep factor? Lutz says a flagging system is in development to address this, although so far he finds those types filter themselves out naturally.

SitWith is accepting beta testers now. The app is on iOS and was released on Android this week through the Google Play Store.

Deb Smit

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared...