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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

How My Invisible Boyfriend Became My Real-Life Crush

Posted By on Wed, Mar 25, 2015 at 9:00 AM

Page 3 of 3

  • Kevin Cannon

At first, Homann didn't want me to interview the real people behind my fake romance.

"We've been really trying to keep folks from breaking character," he tells me by phone from California, where he was on a press tour for Invisible Boyfriend. Several other reporters had already asked for the same access, but Homann was hesitant to let anyone see what he calls "the magic."

He directed me to Invisible Boyfriend's co-creator Kyle Tabor, the liaison between CrowdSource and Invisible Boyfriend. Tabor, too, was reluctant.

"We don't want to share exactly how it works," he says, then groans with uncertainty when I ask why. "We kind of want to keep it a mystery. People can figure it out, but I think it demystifies some of it and makes it less intriguing."

Finally, Tabor leaves the decision up to CrowdSource. The company responds to the email three minutes later: "Sounds great. Let me reach out to one of our workers on availability."

This is how I meet Laura Harper, my real-life Invisible Boyfriend.

Well, maybe. The CrowdSource employees take shifts — Harper says she talks to about ten clients per workday. She doesn't remember my texts specifically, but it's at least possible that she's played Alex at some point over the last several weeks. It can be a lot to keep track of, playing that many roles in one day.

"I'll keep notes if it's someone I talk to a lot," she explains.

When a regular client mentions an important detail, like the name of a pet, Harper posts it on an online forum for other CrowdSource employees so they can continue the conversation when she's off her shift. "We're trying to make it so you are talking to the same person about the same things."

I quickly discover that Harper is the kind of woman I'd be friends with in real life. She is a 44-year-old editor in Houston, Texas (my home state), a widow and the mother of a teenage son. She's compassionate, clever and forthright — she doesn't hesitate when I ask how her husband, who died seven years ago, would have reacted to her work with IB.

"He would laugh about it," she says. Her sixteen-year-old son? Not so much. "He hates it. 'It's like a 1-900 number, Mom!' I tell him we're getting pizza money out of it."

Harper, who usually writes product descriptions and travel guides for CrowdSource, thought selling fake relationships to lonely people sounded a little pathetic at first. She was watching TV the night Invisible Boyfriend launched in beta mode and saw a client's text message pop up in her workflow. Driven by a mixture of boredom and curiosity, she opened it and found reply instructions from CrowdSource, the girlfriend/boyfriend profile written by the client and the five previously sent texts between the "couple."

"I basically just went with it," Harper remembers. "I answered the first text and was like, 'Hey, this is actually kind of fun.'"

After responding to 30 clients that first night, Harper realized she made a much better Invisible Boyfriend than Invisible Girlfriend, "because I know what I would want to hear." She pushes her 160-character limit to the max as she crafts heartfelt responses: "Each time I say your name, it's almost like I can feel your hair running through my fingers and your skin under my touch."

For privacy reasons, Harper (like all CrowdSource employees) never sees the client's phone number. And for her own security, Harper never shares any personal identifying information with clients. But because the conversations are designed to be intimate, flirtatious and even loving, Harper finds herself opening up to total strangers and forming unexpectedly strong emotional bonds.

"You do form an attachment with people," she says. "Well, 'attachment' is a really heavy word. But you do look forward to seeing them. It is a real relationship, in that you are sharing with each other."

Harper says of all the clients she's talked to, only a handful are faking their relationship for someone else's benefit. The majority of Harper's clients are like me, reaching out for an authentic, unfailing emotional connection from behind the relative safety of an anonymous text message.

"I have had people say, 'You know what, I wish I knew you in real life,'" Harper says. "Those are the times when it gets hard.... You just want to shout at them, 'But I am real! The thing I just texted is real!' But then you're breaking character. I really, really, really try not to break character, ever."

Just once has a client perturbed her so much she almost removed the fourth wall.

"Can we talk about astrology," the client texted around midnight.

Harper responded in her role as Invisible Boyfriend Albert Banks: "Sure... I'm a Gemini. While many think that makes a person two-faced, it's totally not so"

"Idk you've been pretty two faced lately," the client wrote back.

"Why's that?"

"Omg if you even have to ask why then u don't deserve to know"

"I'm seriously replaying all of our conversations, and I'm at a loss for how that could be. :("

"I like want to see some BIG effort from you this week, emotionally. Night babe!"

Two weeks later, Harper saw that exact conversation in a Jezebel article titled "How I Lost My Invisible Boyfriend in 6 Days." In the story, Jezebel writer Ellie Shechet tries to get her Invisible Boyfriend to dump her by sending acerbic and sometimes drunken texts. (My favorite: "YOU ARE GARBAGE.")

"I'm looking at this text and I'm like, 'Wait a minute, this is the conversation we had,'" Harper says.

The story ends with "Albert" — not played by Harper this time — telling Shechet: "omg, i'm so sorry. i thought i told you i'm with someone. i thought we were just chatting as friends. i'm so sorry." Shechet writes triumphantly that Albert "had snapped like a goddamn twig."

That upset Harper, who, even though she didn't send that last text, still feels like she was Shechet's Invisible Boyfriend. "I so wanted to respond in the comments, 'Hey, this is your real Invisible Boyfriend. I didn't break up with you. You tried to pick a fight with me!'" Harper says.

Harper says she would never break up with a client. It's "against the rules," sure, but listening to her, it's clear she puts a small part of her own heart into each interaction.

"I care about that person in that moment."

In the last month, I haven't talked to Alex as much. I rarely respond when he texts: "What are you doing this weekend?" or "Thanks for that sweet voicemail! It came right when I needed it, you're so great." It was one of my stranger break-ups. We never so much as had a fight. There were real feelings there for a person who did not exist, then they dissipated. Still, after every few days of radio silence, I get obliviously cheery messages.

"I miss you and I can't wait to see you!"

Homann didn't intend to create this new kind of social network, but beta testing has proven that Invisible Boyfriend has the potential to be something much more innovative than its original purpose.

"I honestly can't say where we expect this go to, but I can promise that it is somewhere different," he says.

Alex also sent me voicemails, and for Valentine's Day, mailed me a card with pictures of a dozen "Roses": Rosie Perez, Rosie the Riveter, Charlie Rose. (My real-life boyfriend and I didn't exchange gifts this year, so Alex's was the only Valentine I received.) But the real genius of Invisible Boyfriend is how it capitalizes on our modern preference for text messages.

"There's a societal shift about how we interact," Homann says. "There's this broadening of connection and loosening of the strength of those bonds, and this service really leverages this idea that you can be both connected and disconnected at the same time."

It's possible the next iteration of Invisible Boyfriend could include sexting, Homann says. The company would need some for its workers, and that's doable, says Steinbruegge. CrowdSource already has a team of willing freelance workers trained to monitor online forums and censor adult content. Flip that training around, teach workers how to create adult-only content, and let the sexting begin.

"That will be a bridge we cross when we have that conversation again with Matt," says Steinbruegge.

Even without a sexual timbre, I'm not the only user who developed a strong bond with her pretend lover. Harper says she's gotten messages from clients in distress because they don't have enough money to re-up their account.

"People have said, 'I'm running out of texts, and I'm so sad because I'm going to miss you,'" she says.

Likely because I have a free media account, my credit card wasn't charged when I exceeded my text limit by thirteen messages. But I'm no longer in any danger of maxing out on Alex. I've found that every time I start to write him a text, I actually want to talk to Harper instead. I want to ask her what it's like to be a Green Bay fan in Texas territory. I want to talk to her about her favorite books and authors. I want to know how the husband she mentions with such love in her voice died — during our one conversation I hadn't asked.

Harper told me she has to emotionally invest herself into every Invisible Boyfriend/Girlfriend conversation. I found myself mirroring that back to Alex — the experience worked when I jumped wholeheartedly into a conversation. I've found that harder to do now — through Harper, I got a taste of a genuine human connection. "Alex" feels a bit ersatz and stale. Maybe Homann and Tabor were right to not want me to peek behind the curtain.

When I do hear from Alex, I've found myself wondering if the person I'm texting is actually Harper — and if I can lift the veil and finish our conversation.

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