A new website will allow Australians to hire platonic friends for “endless possibilities” with one caveat: no physical contact allowed.
Friends For Hire will open its doors to pre-registered members on March 22, after a three-month, full-time development effort by Queensland communications agency Wildside Group.
Co-founder and managing partner Josh Blundell declined to disclose costs of the project but said he and business partner Jackson Hogan had invested “a lot of time and money” into it, including costs of a three-person web development team, and marketing campaigns on Gumtree, Facebook and Craigslist.
Friends For Hire divides users into two categories: “friends” who may charge up to $60 an hour for their company, and “members” who pay the friends directly as well as a $5 weekly membership fee to the website.
The site has some 1500 pre-registered “friends for hire” so far.
Blundell insisted that the site was not intended as a romantic matchmaking service nor a platform for soliciting sexual services.
“Every member and friend [relationship] is going to be different, depending on what their needs are,” he said, highlighting as examples members seeking company in a new city, gym buddies, “friends” to converse with them in a new language, or to confide in over the phone.
“It's definitely not a dating website. It's for people who are lonely, without the expectation that things will move beyond a platonic friendship.
“If anyone was found to be outside the terms of service, we would remove them from the site.”
In the US the most popular such site, RentAFriend, claims to have more than 500,000 friends available worldwide for everything from museum visits to skydiving. But in order to get in touch, users need to cough up a $US24.95/month membership fee.
Helen White, a Boston-based friend, says she has been paid $20 an hour just for her company. "We went to a concert together," she says of one date. "All in all, I made $60, plus he bought my drinks. It was actually very natural; there wasn't any awkwardness, like you might expect. We had a great conversation."
David Bakke, an Atlanta-based friend, has had similar experiences. "The first time I had dinner with a woman who was in town for business, and the second, I went to a basketball game with a guy who I think had a friend cancel on him at the last minute." Both times Bakke, a freelance writer, waived his fee since the clients paid for the night's entertainment.
But not all users have such positive experiences. Mikey Rox, owner of the media and PR company Paper Rox Scissors in New York City, signed up for RentAFriend early on (the service officially launched in 2009), and says he has "never accepted a request, for a reason".
Rox, 32, says he would be happy to join someone for companionship but that the handful of offers he has received – all from significantly older gay gentlemen (Rox is gay) – felt fraught: "It always felt like they had ulterior motives, and I was afraid that, by the end of the night, they would feel like it was time to 'get their money's worth' from me."
Though the site is very clear about its zero-tolerance policy for non-platonic requests, Rox's experience isn't uncommon. Helen, too, turned down one friend-seeker because she "felt he was basically asking for sex", and she uses a pseudonym on her profile (and in this article) in order to protect her privacy.
Beyond potential safety concerns, some mental-health professionals question the underlying premise: the idea that friendship is something that should, or even can, be bought. Dr Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist, says that the very existence of RentAFriend is "an incredibly sad commentary on the state of human relationships".
"Real friendship comes from shared experiences and values, and in true friendships, friends are equal," says Lieberman. "Renting friendship is by its very nature untrustworthy, unequal and temporary. Once you stop paying, that person will no longer be there for you; that's the antithesis of friendship, if you ask me."
Lieberman concedes that if a friend were to cancel last-minute for an event that required a twosome, the service could come in handy, but says she would never recommend it for a patient.
"People are more estranged from one another than ever before," she says. "They go out together only to spend the night glued to their phones. If I had a patient considering this, I'd work to find out what's preventing him or her from connecting with people organically in the first place, and work on solutions to that problem. This service is a Band-Aid fix for serious psychological problems."
The founders of Australian-based Friends For Hire, although based in Townsville, expect it to be popular in larger centres such as Sydney and Melbourne.
“There are a larger number of transient people and a more dense population [in big cities], with friendships already formed and a larger number of people looking for friendships,” Blundell explained.
“I think it's getting harder to meet people at the pub these days, especially with the introduction of social media, with people generally looking for more than platonic friendships.”
BUSINESS INSIDER, NEWSWEEK