Rachel Pictor is a freelance copywriter based in the UK. She also arranges Cheltenham Social Media Caféevents and manages their social media presence on Twitter and Facebook.
Social media has changed the way people interact. Online communication has become as easy as talking to someone who is physically next to you and conversations can take place in real time. As online connections increase, many people are seeking ways to get together with their contacts in the real world. As a consequence there has been an enormous rise in the number of ‘tweet-ups’ to help people develop and maintain their relationships as they transition offline.
A new social media business is taking things further from the traditional model of friendship and highlights a paradigm shift in how we continue to conduct our social lives offline as well as online.
Social media has changed the way many people interact and socialise with online ‘communities’ replacing traditional local groups. Now it is even possible to rent a friend by joining a new social media site that started in the US and is spreading across the globe.
It works similarly to a dating site. As with many dating agencies, there is a subscription charge to keep away time wasters and cover administration costs. People can subscribe to search for ‘friends’ in their area, or in other cities and towns that they may be visiting for business trips. Once you find a friend or a couple of friends whose profiles you like you can contact them and arrange to meet.
Unlike a dating site, each ‘friend’ sets their price, normally ranging between 10$ and 50$ per hour. Some ‘friends’ make no charge except to cover any costs incurred for the activities planned, e.g. if you’re going to see a film you’ll be paying for your ‘friend’s’ popcorn and cinema ticket too.
It’s not a cover for an escort agency or prostitution. The only thing on offer is companionship.
It may seem like a strange idea but with around 283,000 friends and 2500 subscribers in 21 countries this may not be so crazy. And in case you’re wondering why you might want to hire a friend the site tells you how some of its current subscribers are using the service. The ‘friends’ can act as local guides to people on business trips, or companions for people who want to see a film or try a new restaurant but have no one to go with. They could even keep you company at the gym and spot for you when you’re weight training!
The sad truth is there are probably lots of people in need of friends who don’t have any: People who have just moved to a new area; elderly people who have lost their spouses; busy people who work long hours and don’t have time for a traditional social life. Are hired friends the best solution?
One of my first reactions was – how do these people qualify? One other suggested reason for hiring a friend is to get personal advice. Why not hire a friend to help you work through a dilemma or some other problem that’s too intimate to talk to your other family and friends about (assuming you have any)? I would certainly agree that it can be useful to get a fresh perspective from someone who doesn’t know you but how do you trust this person? Are you paying 10$ an hour to reveal your deepest secrets to a stranger? I suppose that, as with a ‘normal’ friend, you simply use your own judgement. You could make up a complete fantasy life to share with your hired ‘friend’ and it wouldn’t matter, because it’s not a real relationship and it probably never will be.
BBC News recently interviewed one of the ‘friends’ for hire who claimed that if a genuine friendship blossomed she would happily stop charging. As with dating sites, you get to choose to form a proper relationship or stick to casual ‘dating’. And with so many people collecting Twitter followers and Facebook ‘friends’, it hardly matters if people want to start hiring.
The expectations of friendship have changed and new categories and definitions have become necessary as web 2.0 replaces old fashioned networking. Sometimes, our online friends are inaccessible offline but getting to know people in the real world can be difficult. If you were to meet someone online with the express purpose of taking the relationship into the real world would it remove the awkwardness and complication of filling your diary?
And let’s not forget that making friends isn’t just about bolstering your social calendar, it’s also about trying new hobbies, learning new things and engaging in real life. If your ‘real’ friends aren’t part of all that then maybe you should be hiring one to fill the gap?
Personally, I prefer to have just a few close friends although there are plenty of acquaintances in my Twitter stream too. Today’s society is as much about networking online as it was about business lunches in the 80s. Perhaps the formality of paying for someone’s time is more appealing and less pressurised than arranging ‘tweet-ups’ and just putting yourself out there.
As someone who is used to arranging and attending mass ‘tweet-ups’ I can see the attraction in anything that represents a break from that pressure whilst still encouraging real world engagement. On Twitter you can have conversations in real-time, but it’s no substitute for face-to-face contact. So the question is, what’s more genuine. A ‘real’ friend you only speak to online, or a hired ‘friend’ you take to the cinema every month?