Friends for hire

Wednesday 17th November 2010
Friends.jpg

Moving online has opened up a world of opportunities.

Clothes, music, movies, and dates can all be found at the click of a button. But friendship? There’s a new one.

Challenging the notion that friendship must be earned is US-based website RentAFriend, where friendship can blossom – for a fee.

Renta-what?

Conceived by American entrepreneur Scott Rosenbaum, RentAFriend is a social networking site for friendship.

It’s strictly nonphysical and cannot be used for dating or escort services. But for a fee of US$24.95 a month, users can log on and immediately search through thousands of available ‘friends’ for hire.

While some friends offer services for free, generally the cost of renting a ‘friend’ varies from $10 to $50 an hour, plus the cost of any expenses on the friend ‘date’.

RentAFriend can be used by anyone wanting a friend to hang out with, explore a new city, or act as a wingman on a night out.

Despite the unusual concept, there’s no denying the site’s popularity, with 307,000 available friends and over 2,600 paid members at last count.

Having started out in the US and Canada, RentAFriend now operates in a huge range of countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

Where did it originate?

The concept of friends for hire originated in Japan, where rigid social structures mean keeping up appearances is paramount.

Over the last decade, the unique combination of an affluent Japanese society and high-stakes social obligations has led companies like Office Agents or Hagemashi Tai (‘I want to cheer you up’) to rent out actors to pose as friends, relatives or work colleagues.

These professional surrogates perform a range of functions, from wedding speeches to simply padding out a room at a party.

Upon transition to the US market, Rosenbaum tweaked the concept slightly.

Rather than shaming people into fulfilling social obligations, RentAFriend markets itself to isolated young professionals in search of friends to show them around a new city, or accompany them to a concert they have a spare ticket for.

Many people, Rosenbaum claims, regard renting friends as similar to the way they might pay a personal trainer to keep them in shape.

Friendship in the digital age

The emergence of RentAFriend has sparked debate on the changing nature of relationships in the digital age.

Friendships are philosophically regarded as a distinctly personal relationship, based on both parties having a mutual concern for the other’s welfare.

As this involves a degree of emotional intimacy, friendships are often central to our sense of identity and self-esteem, and help shape who we are as people.

However in modern society, increasing demands from work, commuting, children and busy lifestyles mean that many people find it hard to find the time to sustain intimate friendships, let alone forge new ones.

Add to this the fact that rapid urbanisation, globalisation and increased job mobility have occurred over a relatively short space of time, and you have a recipe for increasingly isolated people.

For many, technology is the solution. From email to Skype to Facebook, our experience of friendship is being increasingly lived online. In turn, this has widened our definition of friendship, with many of us have online ‘friends’ we may not necessarily be close with in real life.

For RentAFriend, which positions itself as a social networking-style site, this raises the question of whether real intimacy can be found online.

The debate

Public reaction to RentAFriend has been mixed. On the one hand, we shop, listen to music, date and even find marriage online, so why not friends? Renting friends for social occasions or when moving to a new city is merely a natural extension of an increasingly online existence.

On the other hand, critics claim RentAFriend exploits lonely and vulnerable people by taking the basic human desire for friendship and monetising it.

While there is a possibility true friendship will develop, the odds are considered slim because at the core of the relationship is money. Real friendship, they say, is not a commodity that can be bought for a fee.

University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo said finding friends online is the technological equivalent of starving people eating celery: “It’s better than nothing, but there’s no long-term sustenance.”

Nevertheless, the popularity and sustainability of such sites is continuing to rise.

However, no matter what side of the debate you’re on, most people agree that friendship is based on trust, understanding and shared moral concerns. Whether these attributes can be purchased online will be interesting to see.

By Victoria Craw

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