Can You Have a Whole Relationship Through Texts?

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Who's on the other end?

We know text messages can be crazy. We know they can be cruel. We know they can be hilarious. And as at least 21 percent of Americans know, they can make us feel closer together. 

This week, we’re going to examine those moments of closeness — when texting encourages intimacy between us, and when those messages really just create the illusion of deeper connection. 

Case in point: We're going to take a deeper look at a company called Invisible Girlfriend, fodder for countless Internet jokes. Users sign up for the service, create a bio for their "partner," and buy a package of 100 texts, ten voicemails, and one handwritten note for $25. It was conceived as a means of "proving" a fake relationship status to nagging family members or sleazy coworkers who just won't get the hint, and it runs off of a rotating workforce of actual humans behind the scenes, stepping in and out of different girlfriend and boyfriend characters.

However, even its founders have been surprised by the way people have started to use it: as a safe, anonymous, always-reliable sympathetic ear to confide in at any time of day. Take a look at their FAQ:

Sure, it's the premise of the movie "Her." But 80,000 people have signed up for an invisible partner - and it's not the only sign that there is hunger for this kind of service. In China, millions of people are sending messages back and forth with Xiaoice, a "sympathetic ear" texting service powered by artificial intelligence. 

According to the experts, it's a social phenomenon that matters for anyone who wields a phone. 

The people you'll meet in this episode:

  • Kashmir Hill, editor of Fusion's Real Future, who got a job as an Invisible Girlfriend for a month. She wrote a story about her experience, and followed up on it through some pretty eye-opening conversations with a user. 
  • "Quentin," a 30-something former customer of Invisible Girlfriend. He named his invisible partner Margo Roth Spiegelman, after the character in John Green's novel "Paper Towns."

  • Kyle Tabor, CEO of Invisible Industries, who co-founded the company at a hackathon in St. Louis.
  • Sherry Turkle, author of "Reclaiming Conversation." She says the desire for a sympathetic ear is growing, even though there are more and more places to "talk."

EDITOR'S NOTE, 10/22/15: A number of listeners wrote in to say that our depiction of one of the main characters in this story – a man who uses a wheelchair – was not person first. They are all absolutely right. We are going to record a new version of the audio. Everyone should feel well-represented on our podcast. If you ever have a comment on one of our shows, please write to us. We’re notetoself@wnyc.org. 

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Music Playlist

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    Label: BWN
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  3. Busan

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    Album: BWN Catalog
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  7. One Night Tango

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  8. He Says, She Says

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  11. Jewelry Box

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  12. Princeton

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