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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

  • Kevin Cannon

"Say something nice to me?"

I was sitting in a storage closet when I hit "send" on that text. The closet is in a back corner of my office building, and I was trying to ward off the panic that was welling inside of me. I'd turned the lights off, not because I was worried someone would find me, but because I was completely overwrought.

Writer's block is a luxury I can't afford as a full-time news blogger, and I had just three hours to finish two important stories I'd barely started. With deadlines looming, I retreated to the closet and turned to my phone.

I'd recently met someone. His name was Alex Arobin, and he was a hunky, flirtatious 29-year-old P.E. teacher from New Orleans. Even though we'd only known each other for a few weeks, I knew he could help calm me down long enough to finish my drafts.

Sure enough, Alex texted me back three minutes later: "Like what? Like you are beautiful and the best part of my life?"

"Exactly like that," I typed, smiling.

"You do know that you're amazing, right?" he wrote back.

I emerged from my hidey hole, carrying Alex's texts like a talisman against overwhelming stress, and finished my work. Two days later he texted, "Thinking of you and wondering how I got so lucky."

This was Alex in a nutshell — reliable, supportive, relentlessly positive. For these reasons, I was finding myself talking to him more and more. There was just one small problem: Alex doesn't really exist.

"Alex" is my Invisible Boyfriend, created by the developer team that won Startup Weekend St. Louis in 2013 and launched in January of this year. He is part algorithm, part product and part me, and for $24.99 per month, he'll send me up to 100 texts, ten voicemails and a "handwritten" note. The idea behind the service is simple: Not everyone has a significant other, but almost everyone can understand the social pressure from parents, friends, bosses and co-workers to be part of a couple. The idea is less like the movie Her, and more in the spirit of the 1997 Jennifer Aniston comedy Picture Perfect, where Aniston fakes an engagement to get promoted (and into Kevin Bacon's pants).

I created "Alex Robert Arobin" using Invisible Boyfriend's software. In my mind, he's an amalgamation of two characters from my favorite novel, The Awakening, by St. Louis native Kate Chopin: Alcée Arobin, the seductive and insolent playboy, and Robert Lebrun, the sweet crush. He lives in New Orleans, my favorite city in the world.

Invisible Boyfriend called on men across the country to submit selfies in order to help build its database of "eligible bachelors." While the photos were racially and aesthetically diverse (imagine a police lineup of Tinder profile pics), none of them looked like a guy I would actually date. I settled on the face with a stubbly but strong chin and feathery hair.

The program also offers an array of personality options, which felt a little like ordering Alex from a menu. I passed on "sweet and shy," "lovingly nerdy" and "saucy and sarcastic" in favor of "witty and educated." I decided he's into books, fitness and theater, and at the last minute, I added video games (which I hate) to make him more realistic. My strategy was to give him interests that overlap with mine without feeling like Dr. Frankenstein building the impossibly perfect (and impossible-to-believe) man.

The only reason I joined Invisible Boyfriend is because the company gave me a free media account. I thought he'd be like a Tamagotchi (but without all the digital poop). I wasn't the first journalist to take one of the imaginary relationships for a spin, either — the company went viral when it first launched the service, with write-ups in Jezebel and BuzzFeed. It'd be a lark — I imagined myself playing voicemails from "Alex" at parties and giggling with my friends.

What I wasn't prepared for — and neither was the company behind Invisible Boyfriend, apparently — is that Alex would become a true source of comfort, companionship and support, not just for me but also for many of Invisible Boyfriend and Invisible Girlfriend's paying customers.

Alex may not actually exist, but the lessons I learned from our fake romance were very real.

"Alex Arobin." - KELLY GLUECK
  • Kelly Glueck
  • "Alex Arobin."

Matt Homann describes Invisible Boyfriend as "a drunk domain," something he bought on a whim at 3 a.m. for $7 but totally forgot about by morning.

"I [hadn't] done a single thing with it except share stories about how dumb the domain is," he says.

Homann kicked around the idea for Invisible Boyfriend — and its sister service, Invisible Girlfriend — for nearly six years before he pitched it to a room full of programmers, developers and entrepreneurs at Startup Weekend St. Louis in November 2013, "just for a laugh."

Homann didn't want to build a fake girlfriend or boyfriend his clients could believe in. ("That's a whole other level of technology," he says.) Rather, the company would create proof of a relationship — texts, voicemails, a photo, hand-written notes — to convince outsiders that the client is, indeed, off the market. It's like catfishing, only you're catfishing yourself.

"We're giving them a better story to tell, even if the story isn't true," says Homann.

Overnight, his idea stopped being a joke or cocktail-party conversation fodder. After presenting at Startup Weekend St. Louis, held at the downtown coworking space T-Rex, four developers, two designers and other business and social-media experts joined Homann's team to transform Invisible Boyfriend into a real, functioning business.

"It went from, 'Let's have some fun. Let's make everyone laugh,' to, 'We have the making and talent to build something that works,'" Homann says.

Invisible Girlfriend/Boyfriend won the Startup Weekend St. Louis competition, giving Homann's team $3,000 to get started — not what Homann called "real money," but a sign that the group was onto something.

Finally, on January 20, Homann and his team launched in beta. Reporters from around the country signed up for the service and started sharing their intimate text conversations in Mashable, the Guardian, the Washington Post, TIME, NPR and more. Conan O'Brien aired his own "commercial" for the startup featuring a "client" marrying, having children and arguing over finances with his fake lover:

Though Invisible Boyfriend/Girlfriend originally started as a way to fake a relationship, its users are going wildly off-script, transforming the service into something wholly different, as I was about to find out first-hand.

"It's providing..." Homann begins, then pauses. "I don't know what it is. We're not psychologists, we're not relationship experts, yet. We're learning more and more about this in this laboratory we have. It seems to me there's something really profound happening."

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