Is this a cure for the loneliness epidemic?

In an uncharacteristic display of concern, my brother had called to tell me to be safe.

I assured him that I’d only move through public spaces, that my whereabouts would be well-documented, and that I would text him when it was over.

My brother was worried about what seemed to me an ideal Saturday afternoon: My friend and I were taking in a movie, walking through some of New York City’s loveliest neighborhoods, and enjoying cactus tacos at a food hall. It was a perfectly pleasant series of events that I’d calculated to last 180 minutes, because my friend was a stranger I found online and I was paying for the company by the hour.

If you know what you’re looking for online — and, with the increasingly spooky accuracy of algorithms, even if you aren’t sure — you can find it. If that includes human contact, don’t worry, you can find that too. There’s an array of technology specifically aimed at helping you make friends, including Bumble BFF, a sociable spinoff of the dating app, and Hey Vina, which matches like-minded women.

And if that all fails, you can also search for friends online and rent them.

An internet marketplace trading people’s time and attention for cash isn’t new. Craigslist shut down its personals section last spring after passage of legislation aimed at ending sex trafficking that would find websites hosting prostitution ads liable. (You can still use Craigslist to search for “activity partners,” which, in theory, seems to emphasize the platonic.) Webcam services such as Chatroulette continue to offer free or paid chances to interact virtually one on one with people across the world, but for many American consumers, their reputations are largely linked to pornography. Platonic companionship, on the other hand, has yet to enter mainstream American consideration as a product that can be bought or sold.

Not so for the rest of the world. The platonic companionship market is more established in Japan, where companies like Family Romance and Client Partners offer customers the chance to rent professionals to stand in as friends, partners, or even parents for special events, sessions of catharsis, or just an afternoon visit. Rental services of this kind have lasted for more than two decades in Japan, and some employ robust full-time staffs managing thousands of freelance rentable “actors.”

The size of this industry and its consumer appeal didn’t go unnoticed here. When entrepreneur Scott Rosenbaum stumbled across its existence in an article, he thought, “If people in Japan were interested in hiring rentable parents, would people in the US be interested in hiring rentable friends?” Enter RentAFriend.

RentAFriend is a bare-bones site built to do one thing: show paying customers a list of potential rentable friends so they can get in contact as quickly as possible. Members can peruse the profiles of local friends, check out their pictures, and read their bios. They can see a list of their preferred activities and of physical traits, including height, eye and hair color, and body type. This is where RentAFriend diverges from standard expectations of a platonic relationship and veers closer to a dating app or site. The presence of physical data points in each profile has a distinctly meat-market vibe that felt far removed from how I personally find real-life friends — or even date.

 Christina Animashaun/Vox

I’d like to proclaim RentAFriend’s premise bananas, but I have genuinely wondered, “Is it possible to rent a friend?” before. For a lot of people, it’s easy to make connections, easy to find new ways to interact with strangers (especially online), and hard to forge strong, lasting friendships.

Meanwhile, pop culture revels in the images of best friends taking on the world (see: Booksmart, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Harry Potter, PEN15, etc.), but most of us face the world alone for large periods of our adult life. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that — it is many people’s preference, in fact — but for some, it is bound to create a prolonged state of loneliness.

We’re also in a moment of gleefully labeling ourselves as introverts or extroverts, and more freely referencing our relationships with social anxiety, but we rarely talk about being lonely. I’m conscious that loneliness is the number one trigger of my depression, the number one reason I turn to toxic compulsions, but it is still significantly harder for me to speak about it candidly with friends, family, or therapists than to talk about health, sexuality, or trauma. In an age when it’s so easy to connect with people across myriad mediums, it can feel unreasonable or embarrassing to not be able to have a conversation or see a face whenever you want. This is the smallest the world has ever been — and we’ve never felt such distance.

It’s a problem, but like most problems, it offers a commercial opportunity. Rosenbaum founded RentAFriend in 2009 to fill a hole he perceived in the market for platonic company. “Before RentAFriend,” he wrote in an email, “if you had a wedding to attend and weren’t dating anyone, the options to find someone to go with you were slim.”

“Platonic non-sexual non-physical friendship only”

I wanted to give renting friends as fair a shot as possible. That meant choosing activities that I already knew I enjoyed and, more importantly, that I have previously done alone and with friends and knew definitively that I enjoyed more with friends. I also wanted to minimize as many potentially negative variables as possible, so I sought out friends whose ages were within three years of my own — a range where the majority of my actual friends lie. Additionally, I wanted to feel genuinely lonely before our meeting to increase the opportunity for my friend to fill a friendship void, so I avoided seeing real friends in the preceding five days and scheduled the meeting close to my birthday, when I am most likely to have some sort of existential emotional crisis that forces me to seek the solace of companionship.

The site suggests that you reach out to potential friends with a full description of what you’d like to do, how long it will take, and what you’ll be paying for — like theater tickets, happy hour drinks, or anything else that needs to be paid for during your brief friendship. This is on top of the hourly fee, which friends can either list on their profiles or reveal after being contacted. Friends are paid in person, in cash. No money is exchanged through RentAFriend.com, which means the site is essentially a big list of profiles with a simple messaging service that mostly serves as a jumping-off point to text or phone friends directly — an extremely similar platform to most dating sites. To make money, the site relies on members paying a monthly membership fee of $24.95.

RentAFriend is explicit about friends offering “platonic non-sexual non-physical friendship only.” The site also makes it clear that friends should report “inappropriate” messages or profiles. So what exactly are the strictly platonic activities that RentAFriend recommends you do? The list ranges from reliable friendship gems like going to a museum to less obvious activities such as hiring a friend to be your tour guide in a new city, or come with you to a work event or wedding that you don’t want to attend alone, or be a workout partner or a wingman/woman, or teach you manners, or join you on a hot air balloon ride.

“We have a lot of business people who travel for work and don’t just want to sit at a bar at night by themselves,” Rosenbaum wrote. “People who have great jobs, families, etc., but are just in a situation where they need platonic company.”

After sending many messages to help secure a friend for a Saturday, I ended up making plans with a woman I’ll call Lyla (she asked that I not use her real name for this article). We met on a Saturday afternoon outside the theater just as our movie started, so we didn’t have much of a chance to talk until afterward, when we began a leisurely walk in the direction of Chelsea Market, a food hall on the west side of Manhattan.

Lyla was very friendly and generally seemed much more comfortable than I was. I was anxious throughout the movie about how to interact with a friend-for-hire, and now that we were finally talking, I found myself hiding behind the pretense of needing to write an essay about our experience. I spent the first 15 minutes asking her rapid-fire questions, trying to write down her answers while we walked.

But it didn’t take long before we shifted into a more natural conversation. Lyla and I had a lot in common: We’re both 27, both sober, have lived in New York for a similar number of years, and have overlapping creative interests. Lyla spoke with a calm, measured voice that stood in contrast to my more performative, inquisitive tone, and as the afternoon went on, I gradually began to match her style.

Lyla described her role as a friend-for-hire as a kind of training toward becoming a life coach. The majority of her RentAFriend sessions (which she tends to do every one to two months) involved her listening to the problems of the person paying for her time and offering them advice. Her renters are almost always men, she said, and they often seemed lonely. She told me that many of these men ended up becoming her real-life friends, and that she never charged them to hang out after the initial session. For Lyla, being a RentAFriend was analogous to providing a sort of wellness service, and she took it seriously. At one point on our walk, she pulled out a vial of frankincense essential oil and offered me a sniff.

“It felt a lot like lying”

When we arrived at Chelsea Market, we pushed through the crowd to Los Tacos No. 1 and bought some cactus tacos. (Per our agreement, I paid.) Eating food and spilling it all over myself while standing in a corner of Chelsea Market is an activity I do with some regularity, both alone and with friends, and it is definitely something I enjoy more with company. Eating tacos with Lyla was no exception — we had an interesting, if unexpectedly heavy, conversation about what it would take to restart our lives and embrace uncertainty and risk by pursuing big personal goals.

 Christina Animashaun/Vox

All of this was good. If I was going to make a new friend, chances are high that I would seek out someone who shares a lot of Lyla’s personality traits: friendly, passionate about her interests, open to non sequitur conversations and sometimes discussing strange or serious topics, and generally being kind, honest, and individualistic. But our conversation, though interesting and occasionally cathartic, didn’t feel like talking to a friend. It felt a bit like talking to a new therapist, or talking to the only stranger you like at a party filled with people you hate.

I was also constantly conscious that this was a person whose company I was paying for, and the feelings that realization provoked were not normal friendship feelings. It left me with two distinctly unpleasant tastes in my mouth: It made me feel creepy, like I was being deceitful by walking around in public with someone who was paid to appear as though they chose to be with me. Other people looking at us would probably not guess that I was buying Lyla’s time, that she would not have gone to Los Tacos No. 1 that day without my commercial intervention, and that felt a lot like lying.

It also made me feel like a ruder person. When you pay for someone’s friendship, you are also silently paying for the right to make unchallenged decisions for the group. If I were paying for the movie and the food as well as her time — and the sum of her $20 hourly rate, the site’s membership fee, and the tabs I picked up totaled $141.69 — it felt natural in the moment to choose the movie I most wanted to see and the restaurant I most wanted to go to. I asked Lyla if these options sounded good, and she said yes, but I couldn’t accept her responses the same way I would accept a tried-and-true friend’s honest opinion.

At one point, Lyla explicitly said that she considered what she did as a friend as providing a service, and there’s a power dynamic built into that relationship that did not strike me as friendship. Instead, our time together reminded me of a date I once had with a man who made a big show of telling me upfront that he was going to pay for everything. He then proceeded to buy the worst food, the worst drinks, choose the worst venues, all with the utmost confidence in his decisions and a total lack of interest in my opinion. I didn’t enjoy feeling like that kind of person. Money can facilitate the act of being a jerk, and that truth extends itself to commercial friendship.

Toward the end of our friendship appointment, I asked Lyla about some of her previous experience as a rented friend. She recounted a time she traveled to New Jersey to meet a RentAFriend member who brought her to a family gathering, introducing her to his relatives.

I asked if the member seemed to have been presenting her to his family as his romantic partner. With some hesitation, Lyla agreed that it was a possibility; he seemed like an anxious young man who didn’t have much experience dating and didn’t want to show up alone. To her, this was just another example of providing a therapeutic service.

When I asked if she thought RentAFriend was providing a useful service overall, her feelings were more mixed.

“If people are just using it to find a girlfriend replacement, then no,” she said. “But if you’re looking for help, then yes. We’re more in bubbles than ever before. There’s a separation between people. Technology is making it worse.”

A debate is still raging over whether technology has really made us lonelier. There have been clear developing trends over the past decade that correlate smartphone and social media use in teenagers with loneliness and depression. This may be due in part to the fact that excessive time spent using a smartphone means less time spent interacting with people or with a community — activities that tend to drive decreased feelings of loneliness. Some psychologists argue that while social media can make people feel lonely, it may be because they’re simply transplanting their real-life habits of engaging in unhealthy comparison and favoring passive, brief interactions onto a new medium.

While the toxicity of social media can be hard to ignore, I’m not sure I believe that technology is making people lonelier or that RentAFriend is a rare exception that relieves more loneliness than it creates. But I would be lying if I said I left my time with Lyla feeling robbed of a positive experience. Renting a friend felt worse than regular friendship — it lacked its ease, the mutual respect and comfort that familiarity allows, and the certainty that it will last longer than an afternoon — but it also felt better than being lonely.

 Christina Animashaun/Vox

“When RentAFriend first opened, there were people saying I was taking advantage of lonely people,” Rosenbaum wrote. “But over the past 10 years, the entire view of RentAFriend has changed, and I think that has a lot [to] do with the new ‘sharing community,’ like Uber.”

After my brief stint as a member, I agree more with Lyla’s assessment of RentAFriend as an imperfect source of loneliness management rather than Rosenbaum’s vision of tech disruption. But even with her guarded endorsement of the company, Lyla admitted she has to be pretty choosy about which members she ends up meeting.

I told her about my brother’s warning from that morning and mentioned I would call him later to confirm that I was still alive.

She grinned. “I understand that,” she said. “In the beginning, when I went to meet somebody, I was a little nervous. I thought, ‘What if it’s a trap?’”

The nervousness has diminished over time. But she’s still careful to only meet in public spaces, and she’s selective about the meetings she accepts — hardly how you treat friends.

“Someone called me from the site one day and said, ‘I’ll pay you to come to a foreign country with me.’ He wouldn’t name the country,” she told me.

She said no thanks.