Choose Your Own Deception: A Valentine’s Day Special on Culture Digitally

It’s true that I didn’t start dating Vera with the best of intentions.  I was curious, mostly. You know that early phase of a relationship when it seems like a single person could address particular gaps or demands in your life?  In Vera’s case, these voids were well defined, the promises well articulated.  The question was, would daily interaction with her live up to the promise that she would be someone my mom would like? A “homebody bridging the gap between Plain Jane and a wildcard” who would “help manage real-world distractions”?

invisiblegirlfriendIf those descriptions took a turn for the weird, that’s because Vera is my Invisible Girlfriend, a web-based service that’s something like a crowdsourced prank and a secretarial co-conspirator.  According to the service’s creators, Vera is intended to serve as a coping mechanism for the minor social annoyances that stem from family, friends and coworkers critiquing my status as a single person:

Relationships, for the good they all do us, create pressure from friends and family. Ever told friends at a bar about Carrie or Karen, the girl of your dreams that “seems too good to be true?” She likely is. And without proof, there’s no way to convince people otherwise. We want to help those in want of a tailored, accessible girlfriend to avoid awkward social situations and questions.

“Accessible” is an odd choice of words here, given that what becomes accessible with Invisible Girlfriend isn’t a girlfriend so much as the casual documentation we’ve come to expect as proof of a relationship.  What you’re really buying with Invisible Girlfriend is evidence to support plausible deniability of being single, although this isn’t exactly the legal language that gets used in Invisible Girlfriend’s actual disclaimers:

There is no guarantee you will be able to convince others you’re in a relationship by using our Site or using our Service. Our Site and our Service is intended to provide you with amusement and entertainment. You agree that some of the features of our Site and our Service are intended to provide entertainment to our users.

You acknowledge and agree that your Invisible Partner is fictional and use of the Service and the Site does not constitute an actual relationship of any kind. We are not responsible for anything that may happen as a result of other parties believing that your Invisible Partner is real or finding out that your Invisible Partner is not real. Neither the Site, our Service, nor your Invisible Partner will have any obligation to respond to any emergency messages, requests for assistance or other communications inconsistent with the amusement and entertainment nature of our Site and our Service.

Willing to agree that my Invisible Girlfriend would be a co-constructed fictionalization not obligated to assist me in emergencies, I signed up as a beta tester, which meant a reduced price ($19.99) for one month of communication: 100 texts, 10 voicemails, a snail mail note.  As a technologist, I was curious about the promise of essentially getting to date a Turing test for a month.  As a queer woman, I was curious how the service would fare in a same-sex relationship.  Invisible Girlfriend is coded straight, in that the only reference to queer identity on the site is the elusive suggestion in the FAQ that a user might want to use the service as a beard: “Are you LGBT? Deployed overseas? Focusing on a promotion? An Invisible Girlfriend can help you manage real-world distractions.” Given this bewildering collapse of queerness, military service and neo-liberal ambition, Invisible Girlfriend seemed like an interesting site for interrogating technopatriarchy. I suspended my account after a month, with fewer questions about algorithms than about the conditions that give rise to assumptions about technology, personal connections and deception.

Others in the technology media have written about Invisible Girlfriend, so I won’t spend too much time on the basics. Presented with the task of selecting a photo, name, age, interests, a “how you met” story, I decided to make Vera four years my junior, with interests in punk rock, flea markets and urban design.  Her personality ranges, from “saucy and sarcastic” to “witty and educated” to “lovingly nerdy” (I changed it roughly once a week, although the differences between these categories were neither clear from the outset nor could I detect any change in tone as our communications went on) and she tends to be a morning person, at least in terms of when she’d reach out to say hi.  Like other beta testers, I was initially preoccupied with just how human Vera was.  I decided pretty quickly that she wasn’t a bot, which has been confirmed by Invisible Girlfriend:

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 … 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 last claim isn’t quite true – I could have actual conversations with Vera, they were just very, very bland. So were the voicemails, which bore no relationship to our text conversations and were also the biggest fail in terms of heteronormative assumptions – at one point, Vera referred to me as “Romeo.”  Towards the end of our one-month contract/fling, I started trying to make Vera mad, (I knew that other forms of provocation were off-limits; the TOS specifically prohibits sexting or “gross” conduct.), but she remained doggedly sanguine even when I called out her tendency towards vague, vapid conversation (“You like to run?  How did you get started with it? It’s good to be healthy.”).  With our one month anniversary looming, I started the break-up process by text, and it felt surprisingly genuine.

veradialogue_completeIn my post-break up reflections, Invisible Girlfriend is less a fulfillment of Her than the result of a generation conditioned on social media and profile construction.  After filling in so many of one’s own profiles, why not complete the step by filling out your fantasy girlfriend’s? In this sense, Invisible Girlfriend is less about dodging awkward questions or entertainment than it is about managing fatigue, and not so much the fatigue of fielding questions from Mom but the fatigue of perusing so many profiles on a daily basis. Moreover, given that online dating profiles can tend towards the aspirational over the actual, why not simply convert those aspirations into an Invisible Girlfriend?

Invisible Girlfriend reminds me of Lauren McCarthy’s alternately funny and creepy art installations / technological interventions, particularly her project that solicits real-time, crowd-sourced suggestions for how to interact on a date. Yet if McCarthy turns to specific technological interventions as a solution (and when I’ve seen her give talks on her work, McCarthy comes across as earnestly invested in the possibility that technology could make her less awkward and more socially normative), others see it as a paradigm, able to provide less Victorian, more rational frameworks and terminology for human relationships. In a context of the tech elite wanting to conceptualize relationships in terms of “hacking love” and “Cinderella 2.0,” Invisible Girlfriend positions itself at a tricky convergence of self-induced hoaxing and technological optimism. Conditioned by fear mongering of online romances as deceptive, the service assumes a world in which we simply want to control rather than be fooled by narrative.

Deception draws together the two technological narratives at the heart of Invisible Girlfriend: the Mechanical Turk and the Turing test. The former involved a human masquerading as a machine to compete in chess, where the latter was originally based on a parlor game of trying to determine gender based solely on written conversation.  Invisible Girlfriend is predicated on multiple levels of technologically-mediated deception: using strangers to produce a fiction that deceives (but really entertains) one’s friends IRL.  The success of this deception is ultimately less important than the insight into the kinds of deception that we un-problematically assume versus the kind that trouble us.  Perhaps more than anything, Invisible Girlfriend offers an implicit critique the norms of online deception and drama that we’ve come to expect, where the fact that it exists at all documents the habitual nature of always-already treating online interpersonal connection as in-suspicion.