Fake girlfriend, revisited
- 24 February 2016
- From the section Technology
Three years ago, I hired a fake girlfriend.
Sophia, as she called herself, charged $5 (£3.50) a week to be in a relationship with me on Facebook.
She'd leave messages, laugh at my hilarious status updates and, most important of all, change her relationship status to say we were an item.
As an experiment, I tried to see if my friends would be duped by this arrangement, one which I could describe only as a form of escorting - although strictly online only.
After a long week, I came clean to both my friends and Sophia.
I told them it was all a joke, and I nervously told her I was a journalist.
Thankfully, she was up for a chat.
"The whole Sophia thing is just my marketing username," she said.
"Nothing on that Facebook profile is real. My photos on there are really me, but nothing else is."
She said she was doing it to save money so she could go away and study.
'Thousands of users'
But that was 2013, and this is now. Has fake girlfriend tech moved on?
It promised me the chance to sign up and create my perfect girlfriend, and soon I'd start getting text messages from her so I could impress all of my friends.
"My cofounder had the idea for years," said Kyle Tabor, the site's chief executive, in an email.
"He mainly needed a fake girlfriend to get his parents off his back after he was divorced."
It works like this. You pick from one of six broad personality types - because there are only six types of women in the world, you understand. Rejecting "saucy and sarcastic" I went with "lovingly nerdy".
Faced with a stock photo library of about 30 people, I picked out a picture of a pretty brunette. I should, apparently, save it to my phone to show my friends later.
After a selecting a few standard interests - "lower league English football" wasn't available - I was then given help concocting a convincing back story. We met at an office party, and she's the girl of my dreams.
Her name? That was left to a name generator.
Mum, Dad... meet Alma Doris Brakus.
I guessed I'd have to get used to it.
'my skin. lol'
Time to get down to some serious pro-flirting via text.
Feel free to take notes.
"Hi Alma, what are you up to?" I offered, sultrily.
A few minutes later, she replied: "Not much, early day at work so I'm home already. What about you?"
Bored already? Me too. But that's what makes this service more interesting than I'd first assumed.
I thought this would essentially be a sex line. So if I said: "What are you up to?", the answer would be an attempt at sexiness, like: "Ooh, I'm all alone ;);)" and so forth.
Yet the service seems to strive to be somewhat unsexy, almost mundane - like real life. I half expected her to ask me to pick up some milk on the way home.
That authenticity is helped by the fact that the texts are written by real people, a team of "real anonymous humans" replying to every message.
My cagey attempts to inject a bit of rudeness fell flat. The raunchiest exchange being: "What's the sexiest thing you could wear?" met with: "My skin lol. Or a skirt".
"Can you send me a pic of yourself?" I asked, only to get "O->-<" in return. That's an emoticon of a person lying down, in case you can't tell.
I'd have pushed it further, but the thought of some "real anonymous" bloke texting me back made me feel strange.
To sum up: a ludicrous, pathetic idea, that no-one would possibly take seriously. Or so I thought.
"We have had thousands of users pay for the service," Mr Tabor told me.
"It's about 50/50 between the text only and the full suite."
You read that right. People pay for this (according to Mr Tabor at least).
If you just want text messages, it costs $15 a month. The full suite is $25, and you get voicemails and all sorts for that.
The service isn't just for fake girlfriends, either. The site also lets women, or gay men, sign up and have a fake boyfriend. And what Mr Tabor said next surprised me the most.
"Actually, over 60% of our accounts choose boyfriends."
Keeping up appearances
Consider me baffled. Why would anyone want or need this?
"Several reasons," Mr Tabor said.
"Get parents off your back, get a co-worker to stop hitting on you, make an ex jealous, or maybe just to practice flirting."
His team takes the illusion responsibility seriously.
I wanted to use the image of my beloved Alma Doris in this article, but Mr Tabor politely asked that I didn't, on the off-chance it might blow someone else's cover story.
An extensive how-to guide contains tips such as how to talk about your girlfriend/boyfriend, what questions to expect from pushy friends, and common mistakes people make when lying through their teeth about an imaginary human. There's even a live chat function to ask for advice from the site's staff.
But in the end, I had to break up with Alma Doris.
"I'm moving to Yemen," I said. She didn't understand.
If this service seems sad to you, then don't laugh. Just be thankful. Many users, Mr Tabor said, used the service for companionship. Someone to text for a chat now and then.
Like Sophia in 2013, Invisible Girlfriend and Boyfriend is satisfying a need, and a harmless one at that.
If people are prepared to pay for a service, and others are prepared to provide it - then fine.
And for the record, the woman behind Sophia did go on to save enough to study. Late last year, she certified as a fully qualified dietician.