Is a rented friend a real friend?

Claire and Jenny Claire and Jenny: good friends - for a fee

Friend rental services are launching in more and more countries, including the UK. But would you rent a friend for the day?

Waiting in a cafe in Greenwich Village, New York, I wonder how I'll recognise my friend Jenny. She's running late and I'm starting to feel nervous. The truth is I've never met her before. All I know about Jenny Tam is that she just turned 30 and she rents herself out as a "friend" in her free time.

"Hi, I'm Jenny, it's good to meet you," says a woman smiling and extending her hand. After the waitress comes over and takes our order, we start chatting.

"I moved to New York from Los Angeles a year ago and I thought this would be a good way to make friends," says Jenny.

Over lunch we chat about where we're from, our families and our interests, just as you would on a first date. It feels like a strangely formal way to get to know a complete stranger, but in New York people are forever striking up conversations with people they've just met.

As the weirdness of the situation subsides and we start to chat about everything from astrology to literature and politics, it becomes apparent we have a lot in common.

It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but it was all arranged online via Rentafriend.com. And if I want to see her again it'll be in the knowledge that I have to pick up the tab.

"There are so many ways to meet people now. People marry people they meet online, so why not friends," says Jenny. "Rentafriend opens me up to meeting new people that I otherwise wouldn't meet."

She says she rarely charges the people who hire her. Instead she opts to let them pay for whatever social activity they get up to - bowling, dinner, the cinema, drinks.

Exploitation

Her experiences have been mixed. One guy she met bottled out during the taxi ride as he took her to meet his friends.

"I think he got freaked out about how he'd explain how we met," she says.

Start Quote

Scott Rosenbaum

There are people out there who want to get out and socialise... but it has got harder to meet people”

End Quote Scott Rosenbaum Founder. Rentafriend

Another "friend" was travelling to a party in Connecticut and wanted to assemble a group of people to go with her so she seemed popular in front of a man she liked.

If she met someone she liked, Jenny says she would happily stop the meter running.

"I'd definitely be open to transitioning from being a rented friend to a regular friend, but I haven't met anyone I like enough to do that yet," she says.

"I guess some people who use the site are losers and maybe disconnected from a regular social life, but most people I've met seem normal. In a big city like New York it's not always easy to meet people," she says.

Rentafriend is the brainchild of Scott Rosenbaum. He got the idea after reading about similar websites in Asia, where people would hire someone to take to a work or family event.

Deeper feelings

In transplanting the idea to North America, he decided to make it more of a friendship-cum-social networking site, designed to take advantage of the fact that nowadays people often live far away from where they grew up and work long hours, leaving limited time to meet new people.

Regular friend-renter

Chris Barton

Chris Barton, 31, lives in Las Vegas and travels a lot for his job as an on-site trainer:

"The friends I rent don't feel like real friends, more like acquaintances or workmates

"I don't feel like I'm lacking in friends, but when I go to a new place I want someone who knows it to show me around. In Vegas a lot of my friends work in casinos, so they are just going to work when I'm coming home.

"I'm a social guy. I don't want to go to dinner or the movies alone, so I get on the site and find someone new to hang with."

After starting in America and Canada, Rentafriend is now in countries as far afield as China, Chile, Israel, India and Italy. A UK site was launched earlier this year. Rosenbaum says there are an estimated 285,000 friends available for rent worldwide on his sites, and 2,600 paid members.

It is not, he insists, a form of escort or dating service, something which is explicitly stated on the site. But by getting people to pay for friendship, aren't you just exploiting their insecurities?

"No, we are helping people," says Mr Rosenbaum. "As the internet has replaced face-to-face time, there are a lot of people out there who want to get out and socialise with new people but it has got harder to meet people."

While it is free to become a friend and advertise your social services on the site, anyone wanting to rent a friend must pay $24.95 a month (about £17 in the UK) or $69.95 a year (£47) to become a member.

Some friends offer their services for free, while others charge anything from $10 to $50 an hour, plus all expenses incurred on the friend "date".

So what do the sites say about our changing attitudes to friendship?

"With new technology, we've expanded the definition of friendship," says Keith Campbell, a professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, who has conducted studies on the changing nature of human relationships.

'It's destroying friendship'

Mark Vernon

'Friend' has become a word we use unthinkingly and it's almost ruined as a result. It started before we had 'friends' on Facebook whom we've never met. But the abuse of this crucial part of human existence surely sinks even lower with the notion that you can rent a friend.

Friendship must be based on gift. You'll do something for a friend happy to receive nothing in return - though, of course, you'll receive much. But if you call someone a friend, in that call-centre kind of way, even as you're doing the cost-benefit analysis, then you're undermining it, and undoing yourself.

You can have everything in life, Aristotle thought, but if you have no true friend, it'll be no life at all. That's the risk we run: destroying friendship by making friends service providers.

Mark Vernon, author of The Meaning of Friendship

"You just need to look at Facebook where people have hundreds, even thousands of friends. They are not true friendships as defined in the past."

Though they might offer the benefits of convenience and efficiency, some question the effects on your self esteem of paying people to spend time with you.

"A rent-a-friend is an oxymoron, friendship is something which by its very nature is nurtured and deepens over time," says psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert. "I can't imagine it feels good to know that you are paying by the hour.

"There are so many more natural ways to meet people - through a dance class, church, cookery or language classes. This is for someone who values time, convenience and efficiency perhaps at the expense of deeper, more genuine relationships."

In Manhattan, some "friends" rent themselves out like personal assistants to do tasks like collecting laundry or walking the dog. Others are a hired shoulder to cry on.

Jenny Tam has her own rules.

"If it feels like work to hang out with someone or like I'm their shrink then I'd definitely need to get well paid. But I haven't met anyone that boring yet."

Below is a selection of your comments

When travelling a few years ago I used sites like the Couchsurfing project and Global Freeloaders to arrange meet ups with local people in the places we visited. It was a great way to make a new friend and on one occassion I even stayed at their house a few days while we toured Moscow! Now I'm back from my travels I will keep my profile open on these sites and welcome visitors to my town, almost like karma. This rent-a-mate idea is just a way to capitalise and profit on an idea which has been working for millions of people for many years now. Why pay when you can make genuine connections?

Dave, Preston

Ludicrous! Is it another sign of the times that we now have disposable friends?

Hugh, Taunton

Might just be a passing fad for some. Having to 'always' pick up the tab or being charged by the hour, that's just plain simple weird. I guess anything goes in this day and age. Wonder what comes next?

Eric, Manchester

Has it really come to this? Despite "social" networking, it seems that people's busy lives mean they are so likely to be unable to make and keep real friends, they have to rent someone to pretend to be their friend. A friend is someone you can confide in. Someone who gives and takes without the need for reciprocity. It's a sad day when what is given is fake friendship and what is taken is money.

James Rigby, Wickford, Essex

It strikes me that people pay for companionship at lots of levels - up to prostitution - which is legal here. It is accepted people have basic needs and others are willing to fulfil them. What is worse? Having someone increasingly isolated or continuously lonely due to particular circumstances, or for new services like this to aid or help them? I think it's a case of difference - it will work for some, and not for others. Tolerance and understanding goes a long way.

June Gaffney, Melbourn, Australia

If there are people out there willing to part with their money for this kind of service (2600 paid members sounds like a good number), then there is clearly a market for rental friends. In India, there are many marriage sites that charge money for introducing couples to each other and it is a big business. If people can find a husband or wife online, why not a friend? Personally, I have no qualms about social networking - I'll soon be marrying someone I met through an online expat community. Neither of us made any payments for the other's time, but it can't be long until this becomes common for a lot of people out there. With the rapid advances in technology we are now experiencing, our idea of what counts as a 'normal' relationship is changing. Maybe one day, the majority of us will be living our lives online, and this becomes the only way to physically meet new people.

Michael, Mumbai, India

I find this really sad. I think we all need to rethink our lives, get off social networking sites and focus on conversing face to face with people, real networking. This living life in the fast lane - no time to spend with friends or family is an illusion, how much time does the average person spend on these sites? Friends, real ones that is, give their time willingly at no cost and have so much more to offer. Remember the saying: you can count your real friends on one hand. Who needs 743 'friends'! I'd much rather have quality time with my six really good friends. Our children are facing a very empty future if we take away the development and true nature of friendships.

Jan, Oxford

Mr. Rosenbaum's notion that "friendship" can be bought and sold like a commodity is disgusting and shows his inherent lack of comprehension of the true meaning of friendship. I would never had heard of such a ridiculous website if it wasn't for your article. Such an affront to the very essence of real friendship needs no promotion in the media and should be accorded a slow quiet death.

John, New York

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