Is a rented friend a real friend?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."