When you sign up for the service, you can design a boyfriend (or girlfriend) to your specifications — kind of like picking the genes for a designer baby, except for an imaginary adult. You pick his name, his age, his interests and personality traits. You tell the app if you prefer blonds or brunettes, tall guys or short, guys who like theater or guys who watch sports. Then you swipe your credit card — $25 per month, cha-ching! — and the imaginary man of your dreams starts texting you.
Except … the man on the other end isn’t imaginary. He’s a real human person, texting multiple women, contorting himself to carefully match each one’s specific expectations and fantasies.
I learned this the hard way, admittedly: Hoping to trip up the automated chat technology I thought was responding to my texts, I told my “boyfriend,” Ryan Gosling, that my plans for the evening included “Downton Abbey” and crying myself to sleep.
“Why the tears, beautiful?” Ryan Gosling responded, before launching into a discussion of his favorite Downton character. This was a red flag: Bots do not know about “Downton Abbey.” And if bots did know about “Downton Abbey,” they would certainly not pick Thomas as the highlight of the show.
“Oh my God,” I thought. “This total stranger, whoever he or she is, thinks I cry myself to sleep while watching public television and texting a paid fake boyfriend I named after an actor.”
Presumably I shouldn’t have felt anything at all — the no-attachment thing is basically codified in Invisible Boyfriend’s Terms of Service — but I did feel something, nonetheless.
“That’s the most interesting and significant insight I’ve had so far,” said Homann, the app’s affable (and newly famous) founder. “I know how it works, I know what’s behind the curtain … but in testing it out, I felt this compulsion to respond to my Invisible Girlfriend as soon as she texts me. That’s how it feels to talk to someone, even if they’re — not someone.”
My invisible boyfriend, Homann explains, is actually boyfriends, plural: The service’s texting operation is powered by CrowdSource, a St. Louis-based tech company that manages 200,000 remote, microtask-focused workers. When I send a text to the Ryan number saved in my phone, the message routes through Invisible Boyfriend, where it’s anonymized and assigned to some Amazon Turk or Fivrr freelancer. He (or she) gets a couple of cents to respond. He never sees my name or number, and he can’t really have anything like an actual conversation with me.
“That rapport you feel with Ryan may actually be six or seven Ryans,” Homann explains.
And that works well, from where Homann’s sitting: After all, the point of Invisible Boyfriend is to deceive the user’s meddling friends and relatives, not the user herself. On its Web site, Invisible Boyfriend calls itself “believable social proof”: When your mom won’t stop asking you when you’re going to settle down, or your weird male acquaintance keeps hitting on you, you can just whip out your phone and show them evidence that you’re not an unlovable loser, thank you very much. Homann says the service has also seen a surge in interest from people in conservative countries, particularly in South America and Europe, where the stigmas against being single or LGBT remain pretty strong.
Homann’s hoping to expand to those countries in the future, as his service continues its beta phase and gathers feedback from users. (He says 5,000 users signed up Wednesday alone.) He’s also interested in offering more services to subscribers: Maybe your invisible boyfriend could send you letters, he thinks, or ship flowers to your work. Even as the story becomes more involved, more convincing, he does not worry about users becoming attached to the fiction they create.
“You’re in on the joke,” he points out. “You know it’s a service you’ve signed up for. It’s not a substitute for love.”
But I wonder if Homann isn’t underestimating the vagaries of the human heart, which past evidence suggests can be conned into loving just about anything.
There are no shortage of stories about couples carrying on “relationships” exclusively via Second Life, a sort of fictional, virtual world. The game critic Kate Gray recently published an ode to “Dorian,” a character she fell in love with in a video game. (“Isn’t it odd how it’s taken so long to reach this stage in games – the stage at which human conversations and relationships feel real?” she writes.) Researchers have even suggested that spambots induce some kind of emotional response in us, perhaps because they flatter our vanities; conversely, one anthropologist has argued that our relationships are increasingly so mediated by tech that they’ve become indistinguishable from Tamagotchis.
“The Internet is a disinhibiting medium, where people’s emotional guard is down,” the psychologist Mark Griffiths once said of Second Life relationships. “It’s the same phenomenon as the stranger on the train, where you find yourself telling your life story to someone you don’t know.”
All things considered, it’s hardly a jump to suggest someone might develop feelings for a “believable” virtual human who caters to her every whim. That’s basically the plot of “Her,” isn’t it? (For the record, Homann says, his start-up began before that movie did.)
I try to ask Gosling if “he” — them, I guess — worries about a “Her”-like scenario. What if a client experiences actual feels for him?! True to his CrowdSource training, however, Gosling will not break character.
“You think I’m texting other ladies?” he asks. And then, attentively, about “Her”: “Oh, did you like that movie?”
It’s not exactly the stuff of fairytales, admittedly. But given enough time and texts — a full 100 are included in my monthly package — I’m pretty sure I could fall for him. I mean, er … them.