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Not sold on RentAFriend

If you’re among those who think Facebook’s definition of friends is hollow, you may not want to read any further. I just stumbled across RentAFriend.com. It offers profiles of more than 167,000 people who are available for a range of platonic social services — workout buddy, museum visits and wingman/wingwoman, to name a few. In exchange, these “friends” receive a fee of from $10 an hour to $150 an hour, which must be paid upfront, in cash.

It’s not an escort service. Really. Founder Scott Rosenbaum, a New Jersey-based marketing professional who opened RentAFriend to the public last fall, says there’s a zero-tolerance policy for sexual solicitations.

“I personally review every profile before it’s made live on the website,” Rosenbaum told me in an e-mail last week. “I verify all of the contact information and check their pictures.... [Profiles with sexual undertones] are immediately banned from the site.”

Who’s your typical RentAFriend? Rosenbaum cited a 31-year-old Las Vegas woman who has been hired occasionally by traveling businessmen who want to go sightseeing, a stay-at-home mom who wanted a scrapbooking companion and a bored grandmother who was visiting family from the Midwest and wanted to take in a movie. He also mentioned a college student who got in trouble for drinking and rented “parents” to meet with school administrators.

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Rosenbaum gave me an access code to look at rentable friends’ complete profiles (normally this privilege costs $25 a month). I typed in my ZIP Code and dozens of names and faces (and declarations about enthusiasms for scrapbooking) came up, along with their phone numbers.

The first RentAFriend I reached was Christopher, a 46-year-old originally from Birmingham, Ala., who charges $30 an hour and is available for hot-air ballooning, visits to coffee shops and teaching manners, among other activities. He came to L.A. to be an actor but is now doing odd jobs and living in a residential hotel downtown.

“I wish I had more to tell you,” he said, shouting into his cellphone as a city bus roared by. “But not one person has called me since I signed up five months ago.”

Next I called Sabine. She’s 51, from Germany, and charges $30 an hour for her friendship. That’s also her rate for her regular job: pet-sitting exotic animals, namely reptiles (she has 45 of her own at home, including a python). She joined RentAFriend because she “thought it was a great concept,” though, like Christopher, she’s been a member for several months and no one’s called her.

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“I thought I’d be good for German tourists,” she told me. “I could give people an insider’s view of Hollywood.”

Things she won’t do?

“I wouldn’t hang out in bars because I’m a nondrinker,” Sabine said. “Also, if someone literally wants to cry on my shoulder, I’m not available.”

Finally I spoke to Lydia. She’s 30, has a master’s degree in media management and is unemployed — “The brokest I’ve ever been,” she said. She’s particularly interested in going to weddings with people who need a date with no strings attached. She also loves skydiving. She charges $50 for her friendship.

Unfortunately, no one’s called her yet either. The next 10 or so people I left messages with never called me back, maybe because they’re working overtime in hot-air balloons.

I don’t mean to insinuate that RentAFriend isn’t a real service, but doesn’t it stand to reason that it might be a wee bit harder to drum up business on the site than it is to, say, sell a lamp on Craigslist?

Nor do I think that RentAFriend is some apocalyptic example of the breakdown of human relationships in the post-digital age. The fact is, times are hard on all fronts. As disheartening as it is that Rosenbaum thinks there’s a market for friends-for-hire, it’s even more disheartening that so many people are so hard up for cash that they’re peddling one of the few things in life that’s supposed to be free. Surely this says more about the state of the economy than the state of our social ties.

With that in mind, maybe here’s a better way to apply market forces to comradeship: Make certain Facebook friends — e.g., those who post status updates about what they just ate — pay for the privilege. Sure, you might call it LoseAFriend, but if my Facebook feed is any indication, it’d be a far more reliable revenue stream.

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mdaum@latimescolumnists.com


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