Are you feeling lonesome? Go online and rent a friend!
In an age of constant social networking, some people feel lonelier than ever, writes Susan Daly
Published 10/08/2010 | 05:00
Loneliness is considered a relatively modern affliction. Even though communications technology has advanced beyond our grandparents' wildest dreams, many people feel disconnected. Community and family ties have loosened and it is possible to feel isolation in the most crowded city.
Perhaps this is why a service has launched in the UK for lonely people to hire someone to spend time with them. This isn't about sex -- RentAFriend.com is a strictly platonic service. A spokesperson said: "You can rent a local friend to hang out with, go to a movie or restaurant with, someone to go with you to a party or event, someone to teach you a new skill or hobby, or someone to show you around an unfamiliar town."
Companionship rental is already a growing industry in the US where research says one-in-five people -- that's 60 million -- feels lonely at any given time. The concept originated in Japan where rented pals gloss over a multitude of social awkwardnesses, from stepping in as a best man to filling in as the plus-one at a dinner party.
It sounds depressing but the notion of friendship is constantly evolving. Even Aristotle, with his high ideals of friendship or 'philia', noted that not all friends were created equal. He separated them into categories -- the useful friend, such as a boss; the common-interest friend, ie, the bloke you go golfing with; and the 'virtuous' friend who loves you for what you are.
The problem for many people is that they don't know who their 'virtuous' friends are. From Seinfeld to Friends to Sex and the City, popular culture lays as much store in the core group of close friends as Aristotle did.
But as we know from these shows, a good friend is hard to find. Teens watch MTV's The Hills and learn about 'frenemies'. We're exhorted by magazines to declutter our social circle of 'toxic friends' and 'emotional vampires'. Presumably these are people who take Gore Vidal's most famous quote as a personal motto. Vidal admitted: "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies."
Still, we can't help idealising the concept of friendship. In his book, Friendship: An Expose, essayist Joseph Epstein says that: "The idealisation of friendship may be owing to the fact that the most intense time for friendship, for men and for women, is during adolescence. This is also a period when time itself seems inexhaustible, and life's pressures are well off in the distance. Friendship can be explored, friends cultivated, unambiguously enjoyed, luxuriated in."
That period of adolescence has extended -- or at least the period in between leaving the family and starting one's own has -- to the point that friends have assumed a huge importance in our lives. Any absence is much more noticeable than it would have been to our parents, already busy with children and marriage in their 20s.
Yet, as a result of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, we are in contact with more people than ever. So what's the problem? Well, there is a disconnect between having the virtual world at your fingertips and keeping the real world shut outside the front door.
Social-media agony-aunt Amanda Brown says it has never been easier to strike up a friendship over social networks, but that there is distrust without a face-to-face meeting.
"The big thing with any relationship, romantic, platonic or otherwise, is trust," says Brown. "You can have a cerebral connection with someone online but with humans trust is established with eye contact and body language."
Evolutionary psychologist Will Reader of Sheffield Hallam University confirms that his research shows that 90pc of people feel face-to-face associations are imperative to forming close bonds.
An unexpected side-effect of Twitter for example, where users communicate in short messages, is a phenomenon called 'tweet-ups' where groups of people who converse online decide to meet up 'in real life'. As someone who works from home and checks in with Twitter several times a day to 'chat' with others, I have been to several 'tweet-ups' and the result has been that real friendships have developed once faces have been put to online names.
Amanda Brown doesn't believe that using Facebook means you sacrifice time with old friends to hang out in the virtual world. "But people are getting confused between those who are acquaintances and those who are friends. Social media can become very competitive with some people 'collecting' friends who aren't friends."
Social anthropologist Robin Dunbar has theorised that the number of individuals our brain can comfortably connect with at any time as friends is 150.
"I had someone ask me for advice who had 950 'friends' on Facebook. Then his Hotmail account was hacked and the hacker got into Facebook as a result," says Brown.
"In a panic, this guy shut down his Facebook and Hotmail. It's all about trust and it's hard to have trust with people that you don't really know."
At least with rented friends, you get a receipt.