Why I’m dubious about commoditising human relationships

I recently read with interest the story of Chuck McCarthy, an actor offering a “human walking” service in Los Angeles. For $7 a mile he’ll walk by your side. By all accounts he’ll do well and he’s certainly done well to generate publicity so far. Another stateside story on this theme is about Nina Keneally’s “rent a mom” service offering tea and sympathy for $40 an hour.

Both services meet a need. We know that loneliness is an increasing problem in the developed world and its impacts are startling; loneliness increase your chances of both phsyical and mental illness and has as much impact on mortality as smoking. It affects people from all walks of life and in particular older people, with the campaign to end loneliness having identified 1.1 million people over 65 who are chronically lonely in the UK.

However I am doubtful that charging for social interactions is really the answer. Paul Mason, in his book Postcapitalism, refers to the commercialisation of more and more aspects of everyday life. Rather than ask a neighbour to help with DIY, we use Taskrabbit. Need a lift? Uber. Need somewhere to crash in a foreign city? Airbnb. For “real world” tasks this is fairly easy to justify; whether my Uber driver and I get on or not is less important than the fact that I get driven to my destination. However can you really sell empathy?

This is something that we at Biblio have thought about a lot in our quest to develop our fiction based wellbeing service and find a sustainable way to keep delivering it. There are bibliotherapy services that offer a similar service but ours is unique in being free to use and staffed by volunteers.

We keep our costs down by being exclusively online and all of our curators have other jobs. Whilst putting us at an obvious disadvantage in terms of funding and therefore sustainability, we think our model offers users a different dynamic.

Like many volunteers, our curators are supporting others in the spare time for free by sharing their knowledge and love of literature. They seek to understand readers and recommend literature to them not because doing so offers them financial gain but because they have a passion and are keen to share it with anyone that walks through our virtual door. After they’ve been through a cycle, readers are invited to support our service by paying but whether they do or not, they can keep coming back.

Now that’s real empathy.

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