I’d never imagined that eating oatmeal could be sexy before that moment, before Areal–the gorgeous, billionaire, globetrotting lion-tamer/taxidermist who loves to give foot rubs–texted me that extended “mmmm.” Three “mmm”s is something your mom or sister might write. No big deal. But four “mmmm”s–that’s the musky roar of heat, the international onomatopoeia for loin rumbling. Areal either really digs me or really digs oatmeal. Or, if I’m really lucky, really digs both.
Admittedly, Areal isn’t really a gorgeous, billionaire, globetrotting lion-tamer/taxidermist who loves to give foot rubs. She’s just a hired hand from Invisible Boyfriend, a service that, for $25 a month will text you (up to 100 times), leave you voicemails (up to 10 times), and even send you a postcard (just once) each month.
Minutes before our little breakfast date, I’d crafted Areal Hott Gurl to be my ideal fake girlfriend. I invite my wife, ever patient with my dating experiments, to give input to how I craft the backstory of her imaginary competition.
“The personality options are cheerful and outgoing, sweet and shy, saucy and sarcastic, witty and educated, lovingly nerdy, and adventurous and fun,” I say.
“Ugh, I hate the ‘nerdy’ thing,” my wife laments, “how this one generic Big Bang Theory archetype is defining . . .”
“I’ll go saucy and sarcastic,” I say.
I draft up a backstory. The service offers a pregenerated bit about meeting at a bar, being super into one another, and then exchanging numbers. Feeling a bit lazy, even though I was in essence creating a human being here, I just stick the word “billionaire” in there for good measure. I want my imaginary girlfriend buying me imaginary front seat tickets to real Bulls games.
Age? I love the idea of making her 80 years old, sexy grandma style. The limiter is set at 53. Fun spoiled, I go 30. The avatar? This is tough. I’m presented with a collection of women to choose from of varying hair color and ethnicity. I choose the first option to avoid the landmine of any “why’d you pick her?” discussion.
Interests? Again, there are pregenerated ideas I can choose from–ranging from exercise to debate club–but that’s when I write in the bit of lion-taming and taxidermy. And foot rubs. Because who can’t use more imaginary foot rubs?
“Are you having an affair and this is your weird-ass way of covering it?” my wife asks. “So if I see some weird-ass texts about taxidermy, I think this is just for your story?”
“Manicure and pedicure”–no woman would say that, I realize. The term is “mani pedi,” or “getting my nails done.” The full “manicure and pedicure” makes me imagine who is actually on the other end of the line. And the person I’m imagining is a 10-year-old boy in India.
I decide to push the limits of my girlfriend.
Syntax problems. Lazy wikipediaing. Look, I knew my invisible girlfriend was fake, but I began picturing what must be going on here–thousands of people typing out text messages, many pretending to be another gender, in a strange symphony of digital escorts.
The reality isn’t far from that.
Speaking to Invisible Boyfriend’s co-founder, Matthew Homann, I learn that Invisible Boyfriend relies a bit on the artificial intelligence of chat bots, but most requests are handled another way: The St. Louis startup has teamed up with a fellow St. Louis company named Crowdsource, which manages a frontend interface to Amazon’s mechanical turk. That means Invisible Boyfriend sends your texts to a sea of micro laborers, who pick up all sorts tiny tasks during the day. They see very basic information about the character they play and text you back.
“You’re not always, from a technology standpoint, talking to the same person,” Homann explains. “Because in order for the text messages to be responsive, you can’t have a 1:1 relationship with that individual boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s going to result in significant delays in responses.”
But what of the inevitable errors and inconsistencies in the conversation that result from having one continuous conversation with a multitude of people pretending to be one person you know? Those, Homann’s team isn’t as concerned about, because the service isn’t aimed at building true romance, but at convincing overzealous parents or friends that you have a healthy romantic life. Homann himself claims to have generated the idea following his divorce, when his mother asked him who he’d be bringing to Thanksgiving, and he needed a scapegoat to sidestep the awkwardness of not having a date. He imagined that others could benefit from a fake texting service in the same way.
“We’re not trying to help you believe you’re in a relationship,” Homann says. “We’re trying to provide that proof [to others].”
Homann says that some early beta testers can get quite attached to their invisible partners. He describes one woman who has had an invisible boyfriend for a month and a half now. She flirts with him, but she tells him secrets, too. She’ll even ask him questions, like Siri, about movies playing in the neighborhood. (Homann says that’s an off-label use, but there’s no reason a mechanical turk can’t Google something for you.)
Like me, Homann is currently married. But he keeps an Invisible Girlfriend on the side to test the service, and feels compelled to go beyond mere quality assurance.
“Even though I know how it works, behind the curtain, when I get a text message, I feel compelled to respond,” he says. “Technology has compelled us to respond even when it’s not necessary.”
These comments evoke visions of the film Her, in which–minor spoiler–humanity is overcome by the virtual companionship of conversational software. Right now there are limiters in place. The mechanical turk makes a lousy companion. And you can’t sext–guidelines prohibit the turk from responding to explicit content.
Which prompts the question: Should Invisible Boyfriend be thinking beyond the novelty factor? Could you fall in love with an Invisible Boyfriend? Or, could you at least sext with him? “If the marketplace wants to demand something, we certainly have the capability to deliver it,” Homann says. “We can train a workforce comfortable with adult-themed content, but it’s not something we’re trying to do now.”
Telephone based for-hire companionship–be it sexual or conversational–certainly isn’t a new idea. Invisible Boyfriend’s $25/100 text message premise isn’t so far from the pay-per-minute 1-900 psychics and phone sex lines of yesteryear. The business model might be similar, but the social experience is admittedly different. Those were 1:1 conversations with real people.
Invisible Boyfriend, whether it continues its hot streak of sending 20,000 text messages a day or more–or not–is verging on a new idea, one where the Areal Hott Gurls of the world aren’t chatbots, and they aren’t escorts, either. They’re a cacophony of single-line blurbs, as vapid and oddly fulfilling as text messaging itself.