The BBC has an item by Claire Prentice about the emergence of friend-renting services. In the past, these services were often known as escort services and often implied prostitution, or they are known as travel guides. You might be friendly with such people, but friends? With the reification of friendship through online social networks, however, the meaning of the word friend has been denatured and made into an all-purpose synonym for someone with whom you are having any sort of social relation at all, as Prentice notes:
‘Friend’ has become a word we use unthinkingly and it’s almost ruined as a result. It started before we had ‘friends’ on Facebook whom we’ve never met.
This has put the concept of friendship as a noncommercial relation motivated entirely by affection under some stress, making such relations seem almost naive or suspect. Friends, in the new dispensation, are, as Prentice points out, “service providers.”
Prentice’s piece turns on the distinction between rented friends and “regular” friends. One rental friend is quoted as saying, “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.” I just can’t conceive of a situation where such a transition is possible. You proclaim yourself outside the boundaries of friendship once you take money to consent to be in another person’s presence, once you pretend to like them for profit. A regular friend is someone who has earned your trust and attention and affection through reciprocal acts. Renting a friend removes reciprocation for both parties and ushers them into the realm of commercial exchange, where the contract is governed by the principles of getting the best bargain. The rented friend expects someone else to pay her for an option on friendship that she holds the right to exercise.
Are people that desperate and deluded? Do they think, “If only I get my foot in the door with a stranger, she will recognize what a good person I am and want to get to know me for free”? The cash payment then serves as a way to circumvent the awkwardness of initiating contact, of risking oneself (that precious commodity, that carefully tended brand) in reaching out to a guarded stranger. But that awkwardness can’t be priced in cash; it’s nonfungibility is what gives it value as a marker of true vulnerability, the prerequisite to “regular” friendship. The riskless alternative is something resembling friendship, perhaps, and maybe it beats being alone, but you have to risk something intrinsic to secure a true friend. But in the era of hyper-conscious self-construction and externalized identity building, the question, though, is rapidly becoming whether we have anything intrinsic left. Does anything about our “self” seem essential remain, something we couldn’t possibly lose or remake, that we can offer in a gesture of pure friendship? I think that when we reify our identity in various ways online, it makes such intrinsic character harder to recognize in ourselves.