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RentAFriend has surged during lockdown: should we put a price tag on friendship?

By Jack Ramage

May 27, 2021

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What’s the price of a pint in London? £6. A fancy meal? £40. Good company? Priceless… right? Well, think again. There’s an age-old saying “money can’t buy happiness,” which is true to some extent. However, with the assistance of the website RentAFriend, it can buy you friends. Being the extraverted person that I am, who’s been largely stripped of social contact for the last year, at face value, having a few more contacts in my phonebook would definitely make me happier.

We humans have a bad habit of putting a price on pretty much anything (at least in Western capitalistic society). However, is putting a price on friendship a step over the line? At a glance, it all seems like a pretty innocent concept—a solution to a problem. Moved to a new country and don’t have any friends? Don’t worry, RentAFriend has got your back. But dig a little deeper and the unethical nature of the service begins to show its head.

No, it’s not a scam. RentAFriend is actually a legitimate business, amassing an international membership in the hundreds of thousands. I’ll give the founder Scott Rosenbaum the benefit of the doubt, as I’m sure many people on the site have found meaningful, long-lasting relationships. The site has a membership of over 620,000 so, given the laws of probability, that’s a given. But are the founders solving the problem or getting rich by exploiting a deeply woven problem of loneliness in society? Now, that’s an interesting ethical conundrum to explore.

How RentAFriend works

RentAFriend is essentially an online database full of potential contacts who could be your next BFF—on the condition you pay a membership fee. The site straight up looks like something from the mid-2000s and reminds me of the old-school dating websites only Boomers found useful before the birth of Tinder and Bumble shook things up.

After the initial membership fee to the site, people searching for new friends will also have to fork out extra to ‘hire’ the friend they’ve chosen. According to the official RentAFriend website, these rates start at “just $10 an hour” but a quick search on Google shows that some offer rates of up to $50 an hour. 

Alright, I respect the hustle as much as the next guy, but if you really think your friendship is worth $50 an hour, get off your high horse and take a look at yourselfyou’re either incredibly deluded or a self-absorbed idiot.

Capitalisation on mental health and loneliness

Jokes aside, this service is at best distasteful and at worst exploitative. Levels of loneliness in Great Britain have increased since Spring 2020. Between 3 April and 3 May 2020, 2.6 million British adults say they felt lonely either “often” or “always.” During the winter months, between October 2020 to February 2021, that number increased to 3.7 million—that’s around 7.2 per cent of the British adult population.

According to Mind, “feeling lonely isn’t in itself a mental health problem, but the two are strongly linked. Feeling lonely can also have a negative impact on your mental health, especially if these feelings have lasted a long time.” While loneliness, and the mental health conditions it causes, has increased so has the user base of RentAFriendwhich has seen a 20 per cent increase since the pandemic began.

Putting a paywall on friendship

It would be fine if the service was free, but it’s notin fact, it’s actually pretty expensive. RentAFriend is the embodiment of a friendship paywall, leaving those lonely enough but rich enough to afford it out of pocket, and those who are struggling financially out of the loop. This is particularly problematic when looking at the statistics. According to the ONS, areas with a higher concentration of younger people and areas with higher rates of unemployment tended to have higher rates of loneliness during the period of October 2020 to February 2021. Consequently, those who would benefit from the service the most are the ones least likely to be able to afford it.

Using the word dystopian almost comes naturally when writing about these new kinds of services. But in this instance, it really is fitting. I’ll try my best to not sound like an out-of-touch, anti-tech Boomer but the ‘rent a friend’ model personifies the disconnect of meaningful relationshipsand how greedy entrepreneurs are willing to exploit that disconnect. If you are feeling lonely right now, know you are not alone. As tempting as it might be, I advise restraining yourself from using RentAFriend and instead invest your time, and money, in hobbies or community activities. You’re likely to find friends with similar interests who are invested in you for younot just your wallet.