It was several years ago when I first became acquainted with Rent-A-Friend. Made in 1986, the VHS featured a man named Sam having a one-sided conversation with the viewer, leaving pauses in-between his questions for you to answer. The idea behind Rent-A-Friend was people who were lonely for inter-human connectivity could rent the tape and enjoy someone else’s company without the anxiety that comes with normal social situations.
You can readily find Rent-A-Friend online thanks to video archaeologists Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher, a duo who dedicate their time to uncovering forgotten VHS tapes and presenting them via the Found Footage Festival. Once you get past the initial creepiness of the video (all 42 minutes of it), something new takes over: empathy, for the kinds of lonely souls who actually used this service to rent a friend. Pickett and Prueher actually tracked down the creator of Rent-A-Friend, Ben Hollis, and asked him about his intentions with the video; apparently Hollis genuinely meant for Rent-A-Friend to help people and had even envisioned doing a whole series of them, with friend dates available in a range of places and scenarios—unfortunately/fortunately the first video didn’t prove successful enough and remains as the sole instalment.
Fast forward 23 years later and along comes RentAFriend.com, “a website that allows you to rent local friends from all over the world.” So what are people using said rented friends for? Suggested activities include (taken from the website’s homepage) friends with disabled, wingman/wingwoman, hot air balloon, religious, prom dates, and psychic. ‘Cause the main thing holding me back from hot air ballooning was not having the right friend to go with.
The reason I bring this type of service up now is CBC recently reported on a similar website, Friends For Hire, launching in Australia later this month. Online comments about the article ranged from opportunist to ruthless, with some using it as a commentary on how dependent on technology/social media we’ve become. But that’s the problem with Internet commenters: everyone seems to sprout a PhD and the ability to diagnose anything they can’t relate to. Never mind the people who were commenting and saying the service is a good idea/they would use it; they must all be unable to socialize under normal circumstances.
Would I ever pay $10 (the starting rate for most friends for hire) or more an hour to hang out with someone? I’m inclined to say no, but there may have been a time when I considered it. When I moved to Vancouver in 2010, the initial months were some of the loneliest I’ve ever experienced in my life. It’s hard making friends when you’re attending a commuter college (something I think we can all agree Douglas is) and I didn’t have a job, so there weren’t a lot of opportunities to meet people. Plenty of good came out of that desperation for friendship—it’s one of the reasons why I became so enthralled with the Other Press right from the beginning—but there were more than a few times where I found myself with an extra concert ticket and absolutely no one to invite. It’s impossible for me to say whether I would have used this kind of service if I knew about it then; it definitely adds some perspective to it though.
I refuse to buy into this garbage that social media/technology are the reason why services like RentAFriend.com are needed. Loneliness has been around since before Twitter came along and while some people have become socially inept thanks to things like cellphone over-usage, others are just bad at interacting. Social media didn’t invent lonely people; it’s just encouraging them.
While long-term use of this kind of service could prove detrimental (what if someone had to rent their whole wedding party?) it might just provide people with the confidence to overcome their initial anxieties and maybe go on to make future friends who don’t charge them by the hour.