A few months ago, the Internet was obsessed with Invisible Girlfriend/Boyfriend, a new start-up that allows users to "build" a significant other with whom they can exchange text messages. The founders said they created it for people who wanted "social proof" they were in a relationship, i.e., for people who wanted to pretend they were getting some when they weren't. It found takers: People created over 70,000 invisible baes. When people started chatting with their newly acquired invisible lovers, they initially assumed it was a chat bot, but after a few messages, they realized they were talking to a human being, or rather several human beings. The service is powered by thousands of crowd-sourced workers.
Lots of journalists wrote about dating an Invisible. But I wanted to do the opposite and be inside the Invisible machine. What was it like to drop into conversations and virtually seduce strangers? How much would I find out about the people I wooed? So I tried out being an Invisible Girlfriend (and Boyfriend) for a month. It was equal parts fun, disturbing, and distressingly low-paid.
It was surprisingly easy to get a job with Crowdsource, the St. Louis-based start-up that provides Invisible BFs and GFs. I just had to give them my name, address, and the ability to make deposits into my PayPal account. Bam. Hired.
Crowdsource has over 200,000 "micro-workers" around the world who do tiny tasks for tiny amounts of money. Most of the jobs I saw there involved writing product descriptions and doing Google searches for a few cents. To qualify for the “Be the Boyfriend” and “Be the Girlfriend” jobs, though, I had to take a 40-minute copywriting test, which checked my understanding of basic grammar. (Crowdsource's spokesperson had given me permission to sign up for the service for journalistic purposes, but they did not otherwise help me out.)
There are no awkward first dates to woo your partner when you're an Invisible. A sound grasp of noun-verb agreement is all you need to prove you're a good virtual lover. (I'm a wordsmith by trade so I managed to pass it.)
Once I started playing the role of Invisible s.o., it was strange and, due to a five-minute timer on every message, stressful. After just a few conversations, it became clear to me that people weren't just using this as "social cover."
A fifty-something guy from southern California really wanted to tell me about the fact that he narrowly missed killing someone with his car that day, or maybe even dying himself. He said he was telling everyone he knew. And I wondered how many people he had to tell besides this cheerful 25-year-old bottle service waitress from Vegas that he'd created. (We were, by the way, not dating exclusively so I wasn’t surprised when he didn’t invite me over to comfort him.) I texted, "Sleep well! Hope you manage to have some soothing dreams after your dramatic day."
With each job, I would see the person’s first name, last initial and hometown; "how we met;" and my own assigned name, age, and which of six personality types they'd given their Invisible. Now I’m adventurous and fun. Now I’m cheerful and outgoing.
There were 3 major rules:
- I was always supposed to be upbeat in my messages.
- I’m not supposed to break character.
- No sexting. (Photos are blocked on the service.)
I’d get the story of how we met and the last 10 messages we’d exchanged. This setup is designed to create the illusion of continuity; ideally, an Invisible Boyfriend would seem like a steady, stable presence in a user’s life, instead of what it really is: a rotating cast of men and women. And it is both: a woman who works for the service previously told me she prefers playing the role of boyfriend because she knows what a woman wants to hear.
Some of the conversations were confusing, and it wasn’t clear if they were serious or trying to break me. A teenager told her 18-year-old invisible boyfriend that she was pregnant. The Invisibles before me said, “I don’t know what to say to that LOL," followed by a joke about the offspring of an Invisible-human pairing: “That would make for an interesting looking baby.”
And she seemed to actually get upset. Maybe she was just screwing around, or maybe she was actually pregnant and wanted to tell someone, or maybe she was practicing for a real conversation with her boyfriend. I responded more seriously to her, texting, "Sorry, this is no time for jokes. Are you really pregnant?" But then I never matched with her again.
Though I tried to track down the actual people on the other side of these conversations, I wasn't able to. Having them provide only their first names and their hometowns was sufficiently anonymizing.
Over all, the number of users who seemed to really want companionship outnumbered the skeptics. The founders say one user told them she was going through chemotherapy and that her real-life boyfriend had dumped her. So her invisible boyfriend had become a serious emotional support while she fought cancer.
I didn't encounter anyone like that. Instead, I met a guy in his late 20s who wanted to have an extended conversation with his "lovingly nerdy, best-friend-turned-girlfriend" about taxidermy. He said that if he were a taxidermist, he would sew a cat to a dog. I texted, "Would you put a cat head on a dog body or a dog head on a cat body?" But I didn’t get to see his response, nor find out if the conversation was about to go to a darker place that might warrant alerting authorities.
It’s hard to put a price on love. But Crowdsource did. It’s worth a whopping five cents. That’s how much I got paid to write each of these texts.
If I spent an hour answering texts, and took the full five minutes to write each one, I'd be making 60 cents an hour, far below the minimum wage. This is legal because all the workers on the platform are classified as independent contractors rather than employees. "Contributors have a tremendous amount of control over their decisions—for example, when to perform a task, when to complete it, and even if they want to complete it at all," said Jeffrey H. Newhouse, an employment lawyer at Hirschler Fleischer, by email. "That means the contributor isn’t an employee and, as a result, employee protections like the minimum wage don’t apply."
By the time I answered 100 texts, I would make $5. Meanwhile, Invisible Girlfriend was charging $15 to $25 for 100 texts, so I can see why this is a good business for them.
After my experiment was over, I talked to Kyle Tabor, one of the Invisible Girlfriend founders. He had emailed with an Invisible writer before but never talked to one of the phone. (Because he was so excited to hear about my experience working for the company, it felt like he was interviewing me, rather than the other way around.)
Users who pay for "premium" Invisible others also get voicemails and postcards from the person they've created. I asked Tabor who leaves the voicemails and writes the postcards, as I never saw those jobs as work on the Crowdsource platform. "We handle that through our company. We have a small team of creative writers, three full-time employees," he said. "To leave voicemails and write postcards, you need to have access to the entire conversation history, but you get into privacy issues with that. I know my employees and I trust them."
I don’t know how long Invisible Boyfriend will last. I only sent a few texts — in part because the jobs got snatched up so fast when they appeared on Crowdsource. People seemed to really enjoy playing the part. I could see the appeal. I liked the role-playing. I liked the voyeurism of getting a peek at strangers’ emotional needs. It was fun dropping into conversations that other people had started and that other people would finish. And it was a lot more fun than the other boring micro-tasks available on the platform, such as doing Google searches.
But I also found it stressful: you only have 5 minutes to answer and each time, I was trying to come up with something that was snappy, witty and engaging enough to convince the person on the other end that I wasn't a bot.
And I felt like I wasn't making enough to be an emotional escort. If I’m going to prostitute my text witticisms, I’d like to be paid more than a nickel for them.
Tabor didn't actually know how much Invisibles got paid when I first talked to him; he explained that Crowdsource sets the payment. (Crowdsource didn't get back to me when I reached out.) I assumed that, when artificial intelligence is good enough, Invisible would just cut the crowdsourced humans out of the equation and use chat bots, which you don't have to pay per message, instead.
No, he said. "Having humans in the flow is the key to the service," said Tabor. "There are things that only humans can respond to and understand, like inside jokes."
Tabor says the company thinks it's discovered something really novel in having humans crowdsource conversations, and that it hopes to use it in other applications, like customer service or life coaching. Maybe it'll work. Judging from the success of Invisible Girlfriend, there are plenty of people out there who want to talk to a figment of their imagination brought to life by crowdsourced actors, and plenty of workers who are willing to play the part.
A version of this piece was presented live on stage in Los Angeles on July 8, 2015 at our very first Real Future Fair.