I recently went on a first date... with three other girls. No, it wasn't a sexy lesbian orgy, rather it was my foray into friendship matchmaking, courtesy of Joe, a Chicago-based matchmaker.


MeetJoe.net

is a Chicago-based matchmaker who helps mostly professionals and grad students in their 20s and 30s to make friends only. Joe, the founder, came up with the idea when he moved to Chicago to attend grad school at Northwestern. Always a social butterfly, Joe realized that he had to start his friend pool from scratch and figured that many new transplants would experience the same difficulties-- especially if they were on the shy side. Why not assist caterpillars in finding their friendship cocoons?

For someone who has never participated in any kind of online matchmaking, except for that one time on Craigslist, I was intrigued by Meet Joe.

For around $30, you get to meet Joe in the flesh (who is damn likable). He asks you a bunch of personal and not-so-personal questions about what you like, what you don't like, what you like to do, do you want hot friends or ugly friends, etc... (does anyone really want ugly friends?)

Then he goes into his database (composed of clients and his own friends) and organizes a "date" for you and your potential pal(s).

While Meet Joe is the first in-person-service of its kind anywhere, friendship assisting mechanisms, particularly social networking sites, have been online for the last decade. Nearly everyone-- from pet dogs to octogenarians-- has filled out a profile on Friendster, MySpace, Facebook or Linked In..

how many facebook friends are really friends?

While the intention behinds these sites may be to help sustain meaningful relationships, the actual effect has been to help online relationships supplant real life ones.

Irene Levine, a professor of psychiatry at New York University and PT Blogger, agrees. She explains that while computer technology and social media have enhanced people's ability to communicate across the globe, they aren't a "substitute for face time!"

In fact, according to a recent Oxygen Media study, more than half of young women (57 percent) say they communicate with people online more than face-to-face.

Moreover, Internet addiction is now recognized as a serious disorder and may be included in the upcoming revision of the DSM-V, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Facebook Addiction Disorder (yes, it's real!) may be the leading cause of Internet addiction, with some junkies spending up to 20 hours on the social networking site.

But nothing, certainly not Facebook, takes the place of "sitting side-by-side with friends, seeing their facial expressions and body language, and perhaps just saying nothing," Levine insists.

She says there are no "quick fixes to making and being friends. It takes quite some time to build trust and to connect in an intimate way."

Think about it. Do those tiny photos truly represent long-lost friends or are they more like acquaintances clogging up your Facebook feed with obscure song lyrics from artists you've never heard of?

When I tell San Francisco-based social media expert Joe Sabia about Meet Joe, he calls it a "phenomenal idea." Though Sabia personally boasts more than 2,000 Facebook friends-- he admits that Millennial culture has made making real friends not as simple as accepting a friend request.

He looks like Will Ferrell

"This generation has more free time than any generation in the world. Everyone works easy hours. There's all this downtime that requires you to be doing something. There's a lot of strain to be doing that ‘stuff' with others. It requires a huge cache of resources of friends for you to be doing stuff."

Before, he moved to San Francisco, Sabia lived in Los Angeles, where it took him three years to find his closest friends. He asks, "Why should I have to move to a city and wait so long for that to happen?"

Which is exactly the point of Meet Joe and other friend finding services. They help "non-creepy" people find similarly "non-creepy" people to hang out with. After all, no one wants to go out and be that guy who rides the tandem bicycle all by himself

                                         ****************

About a year ago, Scott Rosenbaum, who worked in online marketing and advertising for a decade, became aware of the popularity of friend-renting sites based in Japan. Though he had never been to the country, he figured that the Japanese were similar to Americans in that they both like friends.

Within three months, Rosenbaum launched RentAFriend.com, a hugely successful website that receives more than 100,000 hits a month. The website lets users choose from 220,000 friends-to-rent worldwide.

But do people actually rent friends or is the site just the Internet's latest social novelty? Rosenbaum says it is more than just a fad. "The website has been hugely successful...What I think is so appealing about this site is that there are no other websites out there that really focus on what RentAFriend.com does."

how much would you pay for a pal?

In under a year he has registered more than 2,300 paying members, who shell out $24.95 a month or $69.95 for the year to be able to reach out to future platonic companions. So, what type of person is prone to buying friends-on-the-web?

Just about everyone from 18 years old to senior citizens, Rosenbaum says. "We have paid members who are unemployed to members who are doctors and lawyers."

Unlike Meet Joe, however, RentAFriend is profitable to both the business owner as well as the friend, In Rosenbaum's model, you must pay the friend for services rendered--rates start at $10 an hour and can climb up to $50 an hour.

Before I raise a dubious eyebrow, Rosenbaum stresses that his service is for "strictly platonic" friendships only.

Still, paying for company-- platonic or not --can pose a big obstacle to creating a legitimate friends, says Levine.

"Hiring a friend may introduce someone to other people and places in their community or it may give a shy person the opportunity to practice friendship making skills," she says. "But this is all done in the context of a paid relationship that isn't reciprocal."

While I'm not sure if I'm a firm believer in Meet Joe and RentAFriend as vehicles for making lasting BFFships, I think they do meet a need to help allay the relationship depersonalization that often occurs on social networking sites.

Still, that leaves penniless people to find friends for themselves. Can you imagine? A lone straggler on the street with a sign that reads: Will Work for Friends?

Wow. I'm deep. I gonna go post this on my Facebook now.

Follow me on Twitter! ThisJenKim

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