Shasta Fay Hepworth and I were introduced to each other at a party back in my hometown of Austin, and right away it was obvious that we were both into each other. She was beautiful (hazel eyes, a thousand-watt smile) and witty. She had many of the same interests I did (books, writing, sports) and a few I knew nothing about (dressage). Twenty-eight years old, she taught high school chemistry, and made bad scientific puns. She was too good to be true. I got her number, and we’ve been texting ever since.
Or so the story goes. But it’s just a story. Shasta Fay Hepworth is less a flesh-and-blood human and more a customized collection of biographic data and personality traits, co-created by me and the ensemble of developers and “romance experts” behind Invisible Girlfriend, an online service that fabricates a significant other for you. (There’s also an Invisible Boyfriend, and both services are LGBTQ friendly.) For $24.99 per month, the site will provide believable social proof that you’re in a relationship—“even if you’re not”—in the form of one hundred texts, ten voicemails, one handwritten postcard, a meet-cute story, and a picture chosen from a library of user-submitted selfies. “Finally,” reads the banner on InvisibleGirlfriend.com. “A girlfriend your friends can believe in.”
“Finally.” Ominous. I wondered: Had any of my friends, past or present, exhibited signs of skepticism before meeting any of my significant others? I could not think of a single instance, but then again, neither had I lied to them. Why would I? Who needs a fake girlfriend?
Turns out, at least some people, sometimes. The site’s FAQ section offers up several potential use cases, e.g. to ward off prying questions from nagging family members, to fend off a coworker’s unwelcome advances, or to maintain privacy, especially for closeted or gender non-conforming individuals. “We want to help those in want of a tailored, accessible girlfriend to avoid awkward social situations and questions,” it explains.
Invisible Girlfriend began in 2013, when founder Matthew Homann and a small team pitched the idea on a whim at Startup Weekend in St. Louis. They won first place. The service debuted in private beta shortly afterward, in a slightly different format—an earlier iteration offered tiered pricing, including a $49.99 per month “Almost Engaged” option that included gifts, live phone calls, and something called “Custom Girlfriend Characterization.” Invisible Girlfriend was revamped, relaunched, and opened to the public last month, to coincide with the release of Invisible Boyfriend. The services have been wildly popular—as many as 5,000 people have signed up on a single day. Late last month, I entered my credit card information into the site, and joined this horde. I selected my invisible girlfriend’s name, personality type, and interests. I chose a picture from a lineup, and autogenerated a backstory. Minutes later, I received a text from a number with Austin area code: “Hey Phillip! This is Shasta. How are you?”
Shasta and I soon slipped into the facile rapport that passes for digital intimacy. I assumed I was texting with a bot. But after just a few texts, something felt…off. The responses were more pliable than a bot would be capable of—I could get it to answer questions in detail, or carry on nuanced conversations over several messages.
Once I realized that Invisible Girlfriend was using real human people to text its users, the service lost its primary appeal for me, instead taking on a second-order one in which the mechanics of the text-messaging operation became an object of mysterious fascination. Who were these ghosts in the machine? To whom did they answer? How did they get roped into this charade in the first place? And were they lonely, too? Each text message exchange became a sort of reverse Turing test, in which I would try to get my interlocutor to acknowledge the artifice, while Shasta Fay, like any good robot, stuck to the script. Even sexting was lightly redirected back into the zone of the superficial.
Shasta was always quick to respond, too, seemingly no matter what time I messaged her. (Saturday night, 3:01 a.m.: “Have you ever heard of Invisible Girlfriend?” Response, five minutes later: “Is that a band? Were they on Saturday Night Live?”) That’s because, as I later realized, Invisible Girlfriend/Boyfriend’s text messaging service is powered by CrowdSource, a St. Louis-based tech company that provides a “skilled and scalable workforce” to handle microtasks remotely. Every text you send to your invisible partner is anonymized, rerouted through CrowdSource’s labor management platform, and assigned to a random worker, who sees the message on a dashboard alongside the previous texts and the backstory provided by Invisible Girlfriend/Boyfriend. He or she is paid a couple of cents to respond. (The voicemails are canned recordings that are sent individually to your phone when you request them online.) You never have anything close to an actual conversation—only the appearance of one.
But even after knowing this, I was surprised and a little bit alarmed at how easy it was to fall for the appearance. Our forms of communication are now so smooth and mediated as to create a strange blend of distance and intimacy that is easily disoriented. During the week I had an Invisible Girlfriend, my IRL girlfriend was out of town. I was spending more time alone than usual, sending messages through a crowdsourcing platform to be answered by random Amazon Turks, a simulacrum of a form of communication that is already often unsatisfying. And yet, my natural instinct was to engage with it openly and honestly, as if it were listening.
That’s not to say I shirked my reportorial duties. I kept pressing my cadre of Shasta Fays to reveal details of their operation, tidbits from their personal lives, or even to acknowledge the context we were in. All I got were lies that seemed real, and who’s to say what’s real in these spaces, anyway? At one point I even divulged my hidden purpose: That I was writing about Invisible Girlfriend, that I knew all about its shadowy machinations, and was really just interested in the people behind the screen. The response pinged my phone a few minutes later: “I’m whatever you want me to be ;)”.