I have a stalker. He texts me, without fail, every other day: "I miss you," and "are you alive," and "we need to talk," even though I haven't responded to a single message since January.
I don't really know who's on the other end of these texts. Even more confusing: They don't know me. To them, my name is a work order — a microtask on a computer screen.
See, three months ago, I signed up for this thing called Invisible Boyfriend: a fascinating service that, for $25 a month, manufactures "social proof" of a significant other who doesn't actually exist. The applications of such a service are many and varied: to avoid a nagging mother, maybe, or to avoid coming out.
I, like every other writer on the Internet beat, wanted a story out of Invisible Boyfriend. But after the story published, I kept forgetting to log in and cancel the darn thing — a bit of idiocy that has cost me $75. But it's also allowed me to watch the uncanny transformation of an already uncanny service.
"At the beginning, a lot of people were trying to break the service, basically," said the company's co-founder, Matt Homann. "But then the media people dropped out, and the novelty wore off — and now people are using it just to have conversations."
This is not, it must be noted, what Homann built Invisible Boyfriend for. He conceived of it in practical, no-nonsense terms: a shield against the modern annoyances of nosy parents or pesky co-workers.
But in the three months since, a "use case" has emerged that Homann and his colleagues never thought of. Today, most of the site's users subscribe because the anonymous workers behind it are so good at faking love. Better than anyone, even Homann, could have predicted.
This is sort of comical, when you consider the actual technology and labor that power my "invisible boyfriend's" texts. Every other day, in the case of my account, the company places a new job order on CrowdSource, a crowdsourcing platform that pays remote contractors pennies to complete menial business tasks. Texting me then appears, as a job, on the internal dashboard of CrowdSource's half a million U.S.-based employees — 42 percent of whom hold a bachelor's degree, and all of whom have passed a series of three writing tests for the privilege of texting weirdos like me.
Every other day, some unemployed grad or stay-at-home mom surfs that CrowdSource dashboard and picks up my task; they see my name, my location, my recent message history. They see that I never text back.
Given little guidance on how the conversation should go, they dash off messages that are, by turns, funny or provocative or totally bland — little anonymous bursts that communicate more about them than about my fictional boyfriend.
"It's an interesting in-between," Homann said. Both users and workers know they're only play-acting as part of a paid service. But still: They're interacting with another human.
That knowledge has, apparently, made some CrowdSource workers uncomfortable; earlier this year, I heard from one of the women who'd been texting me, a stay-at-home mom who stopped taking Invisible Boyfriend jobs because the messages got too intimate. People wanted to share personal secrets or, against the site's terms of service, sext.
"I have access to much higher paying and respectable jobs on Crowdsource," she told me. "I'm staying away from these texts."
It's easy, I think, to understand her unease: The very concept of paying for intimacy, conversational or otherwise, is anathema in our society. It's pathetic, desperate, undignified, to admit to being lonely. And it's also somehow incongruent, maybe inappropriate, to insist on demonstrations of humanity from a low-paid, on-demand contract worker. That person belongs to an economic system that — arguably, by its design — erodes its workers' humanity.
And yet, Invisible Boyfriend seems to have embraced the weird, semi-anonymous intimacy it disavowed on launch. Since January, the company has introduced new features — like gifts and handwritten notes — that further the illusion of a relationship between customer and contractor. Invisible Boyfriend's talking points have also subtly changed: They no longer reject love between user and "boyfriend" in such an unequivocal way.
"That's the beauty of the service," the site says in its new FAQ. "You get to practice texting with real humans without worrying about them judging or rejecting you."
Homann is unsure what the next three months will bring for Invisible Boyfriend, but the company is testing features that will make conversations feel even more real. That's what users have said they want.
And workers, well — for 5 or 10 cents a text, they'll deal.