My initial reaction to the question in the title of this week’s Note to Self episode was a solid yes. As someone who currently lives thousands of miles and multiple time zones away from any of my family or friends, I have no choice but to sustain my relationships through texting and other social media outlets. Many of the American friends I’ve met abroad who are in long distance relationships have reported that texting and technology in general make maintaining their romance easier in an otherwise difficult situation. And people meet and fall in love online all the time these days—what’s the big deal?
First, we hear the story of Quentin (not his real name), a man who had a “girlfriend” on invisiblegirlfriend.com, “a combination texting, voicemail, and gift service that reinforces the appearance that you’re seeing someone.” Here’s how it works: You give your “girlfriend” a personality, pick what she looks like from a selection of user-submitted selfies, and personalize a how-we-met story. She will then text you, and you can start to have a conversation—limited to 100 texts for the introductory price. You can even send yourself Valentine’s Day gifts and postcards for an additional fee.
What makes Invisible Girlfriend unique is that you’re not texting a robot, but actual humans. Someone is being paid on the other side of the conversation to act like your ideal girl based on your preferences. This person may not always be the same person each time you talk, but having a human typing in responses helps make the conversations feel more real.
While I was listening, I was trying my hardest to not be judgmental. I like to think that I am pretty open minded about love, companionship, intimacy and the different ways that people find it. And Note to Self did an excellent job of giving a platform to opposing views. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that the whole “invisible girlfriend” thing was kind of weird.
Because a different person may be playing the “girlfriend”, there is problem with consistency. For privacy reasons, the “girlfriend” can only read a few lines of the last conversation, so they may not remember a deep conversation or get any inside jokes. In the episode, Invisible Girlfriend co-founder Kyle Tabor says an invisible girlfriend is “someone that you can always text, you can tell your deepest darkest secrets and they’d never criticize you, they always respond, and it’s always uplifting” (3:28).
I have to ask: is an eerily cheerful person who never has a bad day, never disagrees, and never challenges you what people really want in a partner? Sure, we all need companionship, someone to talk to, and someone who can empathize. But there is irony in that though Invisible Girlfriend prides itself on offering a human to human interaction, on some level both sides must dehumanize the other in order for the service to function.
There are other similar services out there, like the popular Xiaoice in China, which a chatting algorithm built by Microsoft engineers. The need for a deep personal connection is high, and more and more people are turning to technology for the solution.
My favorite part of this week’s episode was the insightful interview with Sherry Turkle, the author of Reclaiming Conversation and a professor at M.I.T. who studies the social studies of science and technology. She answered some of the questions I had in the first part of the episode about why the notion of having a relationship online makes some of us feel uncomfortable, but why it’s becoming increasingly popular.
For Turkle, texting itself is not the issue. For instance, Zomorodi’s great texting relationship with her husband, which supplements their face-to-face relationship, sounds endearing. But when texting becomes the only method of communication, and people even text when they are in the physical presence of someone else, we lose some things: spontaneity, the ability to look into someone’s eyes and know they’re hearing you—really hearing you—nuances in intonation, volume, speed. That being said, I can understand why the idea of having a relationship online is so alluring to people. Online, “you can be your best self” (14:50)—no word vomit, no awkward pauses, no stuttering or ineloquent sentences.
This week’s episode made me think deeply about why we need human relationships. Is it an issue that chatting machines are only pretending to empathize with you if you feel like you’re being understood? Does that make the real human emotions people feel toward their online relationship invalid? What, besides physical touch, can we get from human-to-human conversations that we can’t get from an advanced robot?
Perhaps we as humans should start thinking about how to become better conversationalists, empathizers, and friends to one other, lest our interactions are replaced by machines. I, for one, am not in favor of a world that quiet.
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