The nonsense idea that only desperate people use dating sites can be put in the dustbin of recent history. Online dating just is dating—much like online work is work (how some of us feed ourselves), online harassment is harassment (ask the FBI and various courts), and so on.
With us being digital and “meatspace” entities now, the way we present ourselves online is observed by everyone, from our families to our bosses. With that in mind, it’s no wonder that services like Invisible Girlfriend and its sister site Invisible Boyfriend exist.
Still in the beta stage, the Invisible Girlfriend site says:
“Finally. A girlfriend your friends can believe in.”
“Invisible Girlfriend gives you real-world and social proof that you’re in a relationship—even if you’re not—so you can get back to living life on your own terms.”
You can create your own digital partner, one who interacts with you in real-time and has a social media impact. You get photos, voicemails, texts, and even hand-written notes from your created partner.
Co-founder Kyle Tabor told Betabeat: “Our inaugural service is $24.99 and includes 100 texts, 10 voicemails, and one handwritten note.” They haven’t revealed how they create voicemails, but that is a key dynamic to their service, to really emphasize the existence of this fake person.
The key here is digital impact, as it can be passed off as evidence of your relationship existing. People have long convinced others they’re in relationships, with scant evidence; now, with a million eyes from social media, those who need to create that illusion require more sophisticated methods than pointing at a random person’s picture and nodding.
Creating that online presence seems to be Invisible Girlfriend’s major differentiating feature from other virtual dating services.
Many scoffed, to greater and lesser degrees of seriousness, when they first came across Invisible Girlfriend. TechTimes, for example, called it “The World's Saddest Dating App”. Gizmodo says it’s the best service “to trick your friends into thinking you're in a relationship when really you're just sad and lonely and watching too many of the Netflix and eating all the pizza.”
This is too quick a response. Consider what the site says in its opening: it “gives you real-world and social proof that you’re in a relationship—even if you’re not—so you can get back to living life on your own terms.”
This is key. The problem here isn’t necessarily the person, but the expectations of others, like family members. If someone really does feel some freedom to live their life without parents prying, why should we view that as “sad”? Why should we consider this option worthy of scorn when it’s a way for someone, who is not as free or as stable in their relationships as the rest of us, to deal with problems?
While ideally our relationship lives are no one’s business, people from all over the world still are afraid of revealing their sexual orientation, their views on marriage, and so on. The specter of religious tradition obviously looms large and, as much as faith is losing its impact, it still has an effect on older generations’ judgments of the rest of us. A service that can help mitigate bigoted fears can provide some form of freedom to gain strength, security, and a real partner if they so choose.
If someone truly is using it to fill a hole of loneliness in their life, that’s even more reason not to throw scorn. People pay for sex workers and pornography, harming no one in doing so when done consensually. Scorn and animosity toward such services ignores very real benefits it has to those we often overlook.
Naturally, we’d prefer if everyone who was lonely could find a real person. But reality says this won’t be the case. And yes, we can, perhaps, be at the most concerned—but still not scornful of such people who decide to use it.
There are concerns of the actual service itself. For me, I am concerned with the selfie submission, which sees people submit photos of themselves for use as Invisible Girlfriends (or Boyfriends).
The company compensates you if your photos are chosen, and it’s great to see them requesting photos to cater to diverse groups of people, not merely stock photo model types. (It, of course, also adds to the reality of it, due to people having all sorts of preferences in others, not dictated to by glossy magazines.)
My concern was how the service verifies the photo’s owner, since, naturally, you could submit a photo of anyone claiming to be them. Targets have their photos used for “catfishing,” and everyone knows what awful creeps do with photos of ex-girlfriends they want revenge on. No one wants to see their privacy invaded even if it’s to aid someone fighting off stigma and judgment.
Tabor assured me: “It is very much a concern for us.”
Currently the site uses stock photos of models, as they have the license to these. For submissions, they are attempting various security measures, such as asking users to hold a sign of some kind to prove it’s really them submitting.
All of this, of course, can be subverted by ruthless but talented tech and graphics wizards. Regardless, Tabor and his colleagues are focused on it quite heavily.
Invisible Girlfriend is what happens in a world where our lives flourish and exist online and in “meatspace,” but have not rid ourselves of awful expectations and bigotry of how our lives are meant to work. And while we’ve done away with the stigma of online dating to some extent, bigger stigmas—of being single and being anything other than heterosexual—remain. Services that can help people find some breadth for freedom should be celebrated, cautiously, however new and strange they might seem.