Social Anxiety: I Had A Virtual Boyfriend And This Is What “He” Taught Me

Emilie Friedlander tries out a new dating service called Invisible Boyfriend that offers a real-life Her experience.

February 06, 2015

In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.

Last week, a coworker of mine sent over a Valleywag article about a new St. Louis-based start-up called Invisible Girlfriend. Unveiled to the public on January 20th, Invisible Girlfriend is an online service offering a chance to receive texts, voicemails, and postcards from a make-believe significant other for $25 a month. Basically, you pick your gender of choice (there's an Invisible Boyfriend option as well), “customize" your new partner by filing out an online form, and start engaging in true-to-life relationship banter from a person who is actually a fictional construct. Per a promotional flyer, the company's tagline is “Believable Social Proof," meaning that Invisible Girlfriend can help you convince other people that you are actually in a relationship. The Valleywag headline, not entirely surprisingly, called Invisible Girlfriend “The World's Saddest Service Ever."

My first thought was that there did seem to be something a little “sad" about Invisible Girlfriend—thought maybe not sad in the sense of “pathetic," which is what the Valleywag author seemed to be suggesting (I'd figure out exactly why I thought it was sad later, when I tried it). My second thought was that Invisible Girlfriend reminded me of the 2013 Spike Jonze movie Her, where Joaquin Phoenix plays a man named Theodore Twombly who falls in love with an intelligent operating system named "Samantha." In that movie, there's a very memorable scene where you see Twombly coming out of a subway station with a crowd of other commuters, and everybody seems to be wrapped up in a conversation with their own OS1 (that's what the device is called). Presumably, we've arrived a couple decades into the future, where computing has finally advanced to the point of being able to convincingly replicate human consciousness. OS1s like the Scarlett Jonhansson-voiced Samantha are able to do more than hold spontaneous conversations with their owners in real time: they possess the uniquely human ability to feel feelings, to respond emphatically to the emotions of others, and to learn and grow from their own experiences over time. Unlike even the smartest phone that you can buy today, they're aware that they exist.

They're still computers, though, and as such, they can do things that most human beings cannot—like complex arithmetic without the need of a calculator, or engage in conversations with hundreds of different people at once. Unlike a real person, moreover, OS1s like Samantha are designed to evolve in direct response to people they converse with, adjusting to the desires and idiosyncrasies of their owner until they're able to create a successful illusion of that person's perfect mate. Beyond the fact that the person doesn't physically exist, a relationship with an OS1 could hypothetically feel like a match made in heaven; when you're in a relationship with someone who exists for the sole purpose of fulfilling your emotional needs, you're probably a whole lot less likely to start bickering. (Note: ultimately, Twombly and Samantha do, and that's where things start getting really interesting.)

Though its characters are even more "connected" than we are now, Her's vision of life in the future is one of endless solitude and solipsism: the people we see exiting the train station are so enraptured by their in-ear interlocutors that they seem all but completely oblivious to the flesh-and-blood human beings they pass by on the street. Twombly, for his part, stops going out on dates with "real people" altogether. Instead, with Samantha, he experiences the conflicting feelings of euphoria and fear that we all go through when we're falling for someone—only, at the end of the day, he's in love with what is essentially a psychic extension of himself. That's why I decided to shell out $25 for a test-run of Invisible Boyfriend: I'm currently unattached, and because I've been thinking a lot these days about where technology is taking us, I wanted to see what having a "fake" relationship would feel like.

I signed up for the site on Super Bowl Sunday. Immediately, I was asked to fill out some information about my new invisible partner, including his name, his age, his photo (as of this writing, there's 16 photos of actual human beings to choose from), and his personality type, for which the service gives you six different options to choose from: "Cheerful and Outgoing," "Sweet and Shy," "Saucy and Sarcastic," "Witty and Educated," "Lovingly Nerdy," and "Adventurous and Fun." I chose "Witty and Educated" (for some reason, I decided that he would be a journalist, like me) then was prompted to choose from a list of 17 possible interests, which included things like chess, classical music, volunteering, fitness, and dressage. Lastly, I selected his geographical location from a drop-down menu (I chose Washington DC), and was asked to approve a short blurb meant to serve as an answer to the question of how we met. I chose to erase the whole thing and write my own (something about meeting my guy on a plane, en route to reporting a story somewhere), but here's an example of the sort of "creation story" that Invisible Girlfriend will provide you with: "We found each other on OKCupid and instantly connected because we have the same taste in movies. He travels a lot for work so it's difficult to plan dates, but we've been talking and texting constantly. He's so easy to talk to, and I'm excited to see where this is going."

This, of course, seemed to show just how thoroughly the internet has infiltrated American dating life over the past decade. The running joke, to my knowledge, used to be that if you met your significant other on a dating site, you'd tell people you met in the bread aisle at the supermarket; now you create your own fictional boyfriend, and tell everyone that you met on OkCupid. Still, maybe because I felt a little hesitant and strange about venturing into the world of "fake dating," I didn't end up having to fall back on this creation story; in fact, aside from a few close friends and coworkers, I didn't tell anybody I was using Invisible Boyfriend. Our first night "together," I was sitting in a living room with about 11 other people, intermittently engaging in some text-based Super Bowl chit-chat with a person that didn't exist. I tried to conduct the conversation in my usual voice, as I might with a real-life person-I-am-getting-to-know. Here's an excerpt of our dialogue:

Me: About to head over to a friend's house to watch the Super Bowl. What are you up to?
Him: pretty much the same. just hanging out with some friends watching the Super Bowl
Me: Are you a New England person or a Seattle person?
Him: I'm not a fan of either. I'm for Seattle today tho. What about you?
Me: Patriots! Because I went to school in Mass, heart still belongs in New England
Him: I'm mostly rooting for the party snacks!
Me: Good point
Him: yeah I'm drinking
Me: Watching Missy Elliott
Him: its not her
Me: Impersonator?
Him: to be honest… i've always liked the half time show more than the game! lol
Me: Oh yeah. My favorite was when Beyoncé blew out the electricity a couple years ago
Him: yeah good times

The running joke used to be if you met your boyfriend on a dating site, you'd tell people you met in the supermarket; now you create a fictional boyfriend, and tell everyone that you met on OkCupid.

Here is where I should probably inform you that my Invisible Boyfriend wasn't actually a robot. According to the Valleywag piece, when you're texting with your fictional partner, there's actually a real human (or a handful of humans) whose job it is to send messages back to you. In Her terms, Invisible Girlfriend is therefore actually less in line with the functions Samantha performs than the job Twombly does for a living, which is ghost-writing sentimental correspondence on behalf of clients who don't have the time to write them themselves. I knew this going into my "dating" experience, and I think, if anything, it made things even stranger than they would have been were I talking to a bot. Along with his irregular capitalization and punctuation, my new boyfriend's use of abbreviations like "tho" and "lol" did make me feel like I was talking to an actual person; they were particularities that felt accurate for a person my age who spends a lot of time communicating with others electronically, even as the ideas that were being articulated felt almost deliberately generic. Who doesn't love the Super Bowl—at least in part—for the party snacks and the half-time show?

Our conversation gave me a strange thought, which was that there were probably thousands of people out there texting each other the same lines that he was texting me—cracking the same party snacks joke, expressing the opinion that they didn't really care one way or another what happened. How were these supposed to be the words of the very specific individual I had selected on the website, who was "witty and educated," and who liked books, writing, sports, videogames, and volunteering? When he asked me what I thought of the half-time show, I tried to see whether he'd be able to read and react to sarcasm, telling him I found Katy Perry's performance to be "really sincere, tasteful, and not over the top at all." (He responded with a neutral "yea thats true," which I could really read one way one or the other). Later on, I would encounter a similar lack of particularity when we started talking about writing: I asked him what story he'd be working on that week, and he replied, "Just some local scandal as usual."

Unlike Samantha, my Invisible Boyfriend didn't seem all that customized—or customizable—let alone primed to adapt to my personality over time. And though the first few texts I received from him did give me a bit of an adrenaline rush—the sort of jolt that most of us experience when we notice that we've received a new text message—that stopped happening pretty much as soon as I realized that my Invisible Boyfriend wasn't going to be able to create a convincing illusion of a real person. Indeed, my feeling that Invisible Girlfriend wasn't designed to simulate the Her experience would later be corroborated by an early interview I read with founder Matt Homann, published by the Riverfront Times in November of 2013, when the service was still in development: "We're not trying to build a girlfriend they can believe in—that's a whole other level of technology. We're giving them a better story to tell, even if the story isn't true." (I reached out to the company for comment, but didn't hear back).

According to the Valleywag article, Homann conceived the service about nine years ago, when he'd just gotten divorced and was "sick of people bugging him about whether he had met someone new." When you sign up for Invisible Boyfriend, you're asked to supply the reason why you're using the app, and the options in the drop-down menu tell a similar story: "I want to focus on my work but keep the appearance of having a relationship." "It's better if my co-workers think I'm in a relationship. One of my co-workers won't leave me alone." "My parents are constantly nagging me about not having a relationship. I just want them to stop." "All my friends are in relationships and I feel left out." "I want to make my ex jealous." "I'm not quite ready to tell my family that I'm LGBTQ."

This, in my opinion, is where the sad part of Invisible Boyfriend comes in. Experiencing what it's like to be in a fake relationship—even enjoying it—isn't really the point; it's about creating a successful illusion for other people, having social proof of a relationship that doesn't really exist. Somewhat disturbingly, "social proof" is also a term that gets thrown around a lot in the marketing world; per a 2011 TechCrunch article, it describes "the positive influence created when someone finds out that others are doing something," such as when the sight of a bunch of people lining up outside of a club makes the event inside even more appealing. Invisible Boyfriend isn't using the term in exactly the same way, but the concept seems to hinge just as much on the idea of normalizing social consensus. Even in an America where a record 50% of adults are now single, society is still operating under the assumption that being "coupled"—and specifically, heterosexually coupled—is the way we're all supposed to be. Invisible Boyfriend is depressing because it is a reminder that people whose realities do not conform to a very specific heteronormative trajectory—dating, engagement, marriage, children—still feel the need to lie about their lives to fit in.

As a closing note, I should say that there was a moment in my short-lived relationship with my Invisible Boyfriend when his behavior started rubbing me the wrong way. Though he'd always respond whenever I texted him, something I noticed pretty early on was that he'd never be the one to initiate contact with me directly. The day after the Super Bowl, I asked him how his day at work was, and he sent only two words in response: "busy busy." Unlike the previous day, he didn't seem at all interested in how my day was going. I waited till the following evening to send him another text message (all I wrote was "word"), to which he responded with something even ruder: "I'm busy." Was my Invisible Boyfriend telling me not to bother contacting him? I couldn't tell, and because I had nothing to lose, I decided to ask him he if was "mad" at me. Turns out, I was just being paranoid, but the experience got me thinking about yet another reason why Invisible Boyfriend is sad. As the bulk of our interactions with other people continue to migrate to the digital realm, maybe we're all becoming a little more like Theodore Twombly in our personal lives: a little too prone to living out our relationships inside our own heads.

Lead photo credit: Nicolas Asfouri / Getty Images

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Social Anxiety
Social Anxiety: I Had A Virtual Boyfriend And This Is What “He” Taught Me