Question: If an underdeveloped country has economic poverty, what kind of poverty does a developed country have? Answer: a poverty of genuine friendship, judging by Friends For Hire – a new website that’s about to be launched in Australia. 

Similar to the USA’s RentAFriend, you can log on and hire a friend – platonic only – for a myriad of possibilities: to accompany you to the museum or that business function, to show you around a new city, to be your gym buddy, to fill in when a real friend cancels last-minute…

The thing about this is that it’s not some far-fetched idea that we can all laugh at, before getting on with our lives. No – RentAFriend is very popular, and caters to people who are, unfortunately, very lonely. Really, it’s identified a massive issue of isolation and hollow friendships, but is just putting a BandAid on it (and profiting from it) rather than cleaning the wound and finding out why it’s like that in the first place.

As a Beverley Hills psychologist put it in the Sydney Morning Herald article, the existence of websites like this is “an incredibly sad commentary on the state of human relationships.” As social beings, we crave real, genuine relationships with others, where we can be known and loved for who we are and encouraged to be our best – friendships that we can reciprocate. This just can’t be replaced with an hour or two of unfamiliar company and trivial conversation; and it shows a high level of desperation if people are willing to try anyway.

So why are people lonelier these days? There are so many factors – more broken families, the often isolating effects of media, the culture’s emphasis on putting ourselves before anyone else and the fact that this makes it harder to form deep friendships. Why doesn’t someone start more websites to deal with stuff like that?

What do you think? What can be done to combat loneliness, that doesn’t involve signing up to Friends For Hire?

Tamara El-Rahi is an associate editor of MercatorNet. A Journalism graduate from the University of Technology Sydney, she lives in Australia with her husband and two daughters.