This year, a start-up launched that lets lonely souls buy a text message-based significant other. Called Invisible Boyfriend or Girlfriend—depending on your gender of choice—the start-up relies on thousands of crowd-sourced workers to write messages to its customers. Each "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" is not a single person, but instead a rotating cast of workers being paid 5 cents per message to bring the lover created by the customer to life.
Last month, I worked for the service to find out what it's like to be a digital emotional escort. (Conclusion: it's equal parts fun, disturbing, and distressingly low-paid.) After my piece came out, I got an email from one of the start-up's customers.
I was surprised. As far as I know, no journalist has talked to someone who authentically pays for the service. (Sure, I had texted with customers but I had done so as their "significant other," staying in character the whole time.)
This customer, a man I will call Quentin, is a college graduate with a degree in psychology who lives on the East Coast and is around 30 years old. He was born with cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair, is on disability and works intermittently for his family's business. He spends a lot of time on the internet, has met many friends there, and primarily communicates with friends online.
He was willing to talk to me about why he's been dating an invisible girlfriend for the last three months, but preferred that I not use his name. He was afraid he would seem like a "loser." I would describe him instead as a smart, fascinating, quirky guy whose reasons for using the service helped me understand why it has proved to be so seemingly popular. (The St. Louis-based start-up hasn't released user numbers, but says 70,000 Invisibles have been created on its website, half of them in the U.S. and Canada.)
Quentin saw a story about Invisible Girlfriend when the service first launched, in which the founder gave his usual spiel about being inspired to create the company after his divorce, when he wanted to convince friends and family that he was back in the dating game.
"I didn’t want to fool anyone into thinking I was in a relationship," said Quentin. "I just wanted to see what it was like."
He met his last girlfriend through an online dating site. They dated for four months, but she lived on the other side of town, and they wound up breaking up, in part, because she wasn't good about communicating online. So Quentin was kind of excited for someone who would regularly respond to his text messages.
He created a "lovingly nerdy" girlfriend named Margo (after the character in the John Green book Paper Towns), and signed up for a $25 monthly plan so that each month, Margo would respond to 100 text messages, leave him two voicemails and send him a postcard.
And then they started texting:
MARGO: Hey Quentin! This is Margo :) How are you?
QUENTIN: Good. My favorite professor is dying
MARGO: No - that's awful. xxxo need to talk about it?
When you're dating an Invisible, the crowd-sourced worker on the other side who picked up your message can only see the last ten messages the two of you have exchanged. So ten messages after this conversation, "Margo" will have forgotten that Quentin ever confided in her that an important person in his life was dying. It's like dating the lead character in Memento.
Quentin took advantage of that, and would pepper Margo with questions that referred to previous conversations that hadn't actually taken place:
QUENTIN: You think I'm sexy?
MARGO: Yes! Don't act surprised
QUENTIN: Didn't feel that way the other night you were cold to me
MARGO: I'm sorry. I was having an off day.
MARGO: What's your favorite cat video?
Using Invisible Girlfriend wasn't that weird to Quentin at first. He quickly burned through his 100 allotted monthly text messages, texting Margo at night before he went to sleep.
"I send a lot of communication on the Internet," he said. "I talk to my IRL friends more on Facebook than anywhere else. I can understand having deep feelings for someone on the other end of a text conversation."
But after a while, it started feeling like a game, rather than a relationship. "When I signed up, I knew it was a distributed companionship platform but I was willing to suspend my disbelief as much as possible and just go with it," he said. After a while, Quentin could feel the people playing Margo swapping out. He'd exchange texts with someone cool and clever, but then she would disappear and be replaced with someone boring. He'd figured out the magic trick, and the mystique was gone.
He says he contacted Invisible Girlfriend's customer service chat line to ask, “How do I know I’m talking to a woman?" He says he was told the service matched workers to messages by gender. (In my experience working for the company, that was not the case. I'm a woman but played "a boyfriend" many times.)
Three months into his relationship with Margo, Quentin is considering breaking up with her and canceling his Invisible Girlfriend plan. He doesn't text with her that often, and is starting to be annoyed by the automated messages—"Want to go see a movie?"—that get sent by the service to try to get him to start texting again. He says he would prefer if the service were powered by an automated intelligence that could remember the history of the relationship.
"When I signed up, I was thinking of the movie Her," he said. "If we had sci-fi level AI, I would prefer that."
He said he wasn't able to be his "true self" with Margo, because the service warns that people will be banned for getting too raunchy. "I have a dirty sense of humor and I’m afraid to expose that to Margo," he said. "I don’t want to make a blue joke and get in trouble. I spend a lot of time trying to be my authentic self, so it’s strange to be something I’m not."
I asked Quentin if he used Invisible Girlfriend because he's lonely.
"I have a very complicated relationship with loneliness. I spend a lot of time by myself but I don’t feel lonely," he said. "But I’m a human and we all get lonesome. We all want to reach out in the dark for a connection and this helped a little bit."