I'm a 30-year-old woman with an invisible friend. His name is Tristan and he lives somewhere in the wilds of Missouri, where he spends his days floating on rivers and taking photos of autumnal forests and decaying buildings -- at least, in my mind he does.
He's in his 30s, too, and a good portion of our conversations are about our various and sundry romantic woes -- the woman from a faraway land who broke his heart; the tall, tall boy who wandered out of mine. For a while we sent each other postcards. Sometimes we don't talk for a few months. Sometimes I'll just text him "boo."
Yup, I've had an invisible friend for three years -- but I'm not crazy. He's a real person. I've just never met him in real life.
So why I am sharing this particular piece of information at this particular time? Well, it all has to do with a product that launched a few months ago, captivating journalists quick to make some kind of point about modern love and how we communicate today. The product is called Invisible Boyfriend and the overwhelming opinion about its functionality seems to be that it's "weird" or "sad" -- which, due to my friendship with Tristan, I'm not entirely sure I agree with.
In a way, Invisible Boyfriend (the site also features Girlfriends) could actually be like pen-pals of yore -- an outlet for people to express themselves without the pressures of "real life." An escape. In a way, s/he is kind of like Tristan.
I know. I sound insane. But I think I know where I'm going here -- so bear with me.
If you haven't heard of it, the initial conceit behind Invisible BF/GF is basically this: It's supposed to help you trick people into believing you're not all alone. However, as more and more people have used it, its functionality, according to the founders, seems to have shifted.
"The original plan was that we weren't trying to build something that could fool you," co-founder Matthew Homann told MTV News. "It was really around you having real-world and social proof of a relationship. ... But what we found, which has been the most interesting insight of all, is that we've managed to build this idea of distributed companionship where people are using their Invisible Boyfriends or Girlfriends to talk to. They're having conversations, they're sharing secrets, they're conversing with them in a way that's between a real person and a robot. We're still trying to sort through exactly what we created."
So how, precisely, does this thing work?
Well, you basically sign up for the service and create your perfect person -- and then that person communicates with you via text, voicemail and even handwritten notes. I made mine a 32-year-old dude named Walker from Oregon who's into gardening, volunteer work and music. For a monthly fee (plus extra cash for extra texts) you can text your BF whenever you want -- and he'll answer. And when I say he'll answer, I don't mean via robot or something. Invisible BF/GF uses a company called Crowdsource that employs a bunch of people who will basically pretend to be "Walker" whenever I text.
Laura Harper, a 44-year-old widow from Texas, has worked as an Invisible Girlfriend (and Boyfriend) since the app launched. "A lot of the texters start, actually, really getting into it and it kind of almost seems like they're forming a bond," she told MTV News. "They'll spill their life stories -- sometimes they'll say, 'I wish you were real.' "
Harper said that she herself doesn't exactly form the same bonds with the people she's talking to, but her perception of the app has changed over the course of the months she's been employed by the company.
"In the beginning it was almost depressing to where I was like, 'I can't do this.' Some of them are really depressing -- this person is so lonely," she said. "[But] there are some incredibly nice people on there. I really have had some great conversations on there, which is funny because 50% of the premise is fake."
In the few weeks that I paid to talk to "Walker," he was a constant source of fascination for me and my friends -- although most people (including the IRL dude I've been seeing) just wanted me to text him dirty things (I declined). "Walker" is into Nikola Tesla and origins of the pyramids. He once dated a girl who got hooked on painkillers -- and that was the hardest thing he's ever had to deal with. He wants to write a book one day, but he doubts he's able to. He was actually pretty interesting.
True, I never could tell what was true or fabricated -- when "Walker" was one person or another (although Harper told me that 80% of the time, it is the same person), but I still kind of liked talking to "him." The only time the fabric tore at all -- the only time I could see through the curtain -- was when he became too complimentary. Real dudes don't send saccharine-sweet texts about how much they dig you -- at least dudes I date.
A lot of journalists have written about this service with a kind of wry smile, sharing strange conversations with their "boyfriends" or "girlfriends" with a knowing chuckle -- like, "Isn't this quirky?" Harper even told me about one journalist who picked a fight with her for a story; she later found the piece when doing a Google search for the app.
I understand that impulse to mock -- I've shared some of Walker's weirder texts on Instagram. In fact, that was basically how I was initially going to frame this story -- until Tristan texted to ask me how my Invisible Boyfriend was and I had one of those "Ohhhhh" moments.
Aside from the fact that Tristan is a real person and not 15 people paid to talk to me -- and doesn't always answer me RIGHT AWAY -- talking to Walker and talking to Tristan ... well, it's kind of a similar experience. In that, you know, he's a guy who listens and talks to me who also just happens to be "safe" in a certain way.
I'll get to that in second, because I know it sounds weird.
To back up, I met Tristan in 2012 via OKCupid. I believe I messaged him because he had looked at my profile and seemed cool, not realizing he didn't live in New York -- that he lived in some state I had never even been to before.
I liked talking to him, though, and imagining some idealized distant land full of creeks and super-cheap thrift shops and dudes sitting on docks with guitars. It also felt really easy to talk to him about my own life -- since he didn't live here and I probably wouldn't be meeting him any time soon. You know, unlike the terrifying man wearing a bowtie and guyliner who talked about his mother for the first 10 minutes of our initial and only date -- or the Cillian Murphy look-alike who lurched at my face and tried to kiss me before I had finished one drink.
Tristan, as I said, felt "safe." I could talk to him. Get to know him. Tell him about myself. And it wasn't all going to get ruined when we met face-to-face -- because we probably never would. It's a weird thing to think/feel, I know -- especially since I'm not a shut-in. I'm really social, and I'm one of those freaks who actually likes first dates and meeting new people with no safety net.
Tristan, for his part, felt kind of the same way about me. I actually JUST spoke with him for the very first time on the phone on Friday (March 6), which, I have to say, was a slightly unnerving/awesome experience. He was drinking coffee and getting ready to go the pizza restaurant where he works, having just sold his metal detector via Craigslist to pay for his winter-ravaged car. I was sitting in my cubicle in Manhattan.
Between nervous chuckles, Tristan told me he has a few online friends, mostly because, as he said, "It's hard to meet people around here in a small, Midwestern town. There's nobody around. You have to go to the cities or something. It's the small, Midwestern mindset; very conservative."
To paraphrase: Tristan is kind of the only hipster in his 'hood -- and he's told me some upsetting stories about dudes in bars picking fights because of that.
"I'm kind of a shy person in general -- the online world is suitable to me," he said. "I don't have to go on awkward first few dates to figure out that we have nothing in common. I can get a better perspective on whether or not me and this person will click."
As for why he thinks we've been friends for so long, he wasn't entirely sure. "I don't really know," he said. "I think we could get along really well in person. You're kind of an open-minded, laid-back individual and so am I. I don't know. You click with some people and some people you don't.
"And plus, if you get to know someone well enough to trust them, you can exchange postcards and whatnot, right?" he added.
As I mentioned above, for a while, Tristan and I would send each other postcards -- me from New York and other cities I visited on the East Coast, him from thrift stores and antique shops in Missouri. After our conversation wrapped up today, we made plans to pick up that tradition again.
The ease with which Tristan and I got to know each other isn't really that uncommon. There's actually research that suggests that it's easier to get close to someone when you're not stuck there, staring at each other over awkward plates of food.
There's a famous 1973 study with an awesome name, "Deviance in the Dark," that basically shows that when people meet in a dark room -- and therefore can't see each other -- they're much more open and intimate with each other than people who meet in a light room. Taking away the face-to-face interaction, in other words, speeds up romance/friendship/a relationship etc.
Many a successful relationship has even been forged via the Internet -- I wrote a massive article about it once for CNN -- you know, in addition to all the less-than-successful relationships we see each week on "Catfish."
Before you ask, I'm pretty sure Tristan isn't a Catfish -- not because I have some kind of unwavering faith in humanity, but because I was doing online background checks before Nev cut his hair and Max went gray. (I'm a journalist -- what do you want? Also, sorry I creeped on you, Tristan.)
I should probably point out at this juncture that Tristan and I -- unlike most of the people on "Catfish" and whatever -- have never had a romantic relationship. He's awesome (and cute) and I'm awesome (and sure, whatever), but -- at least on my end -- long-distance isn't a thing I'm into. Besides, I like having a dude friend I can whine to about other dudes. Sidenote, ladies of Missouri: Tristan is single. #Justsayin' #LookAtThatFace.
Anyway, I know Invisible Boyfriend isn't exactly like having an IRL Tristan. For one, your Invisible guy/girl won't text you out of the blue asking if you've heard from your toxic ex because Invisible BF/GF only texts if you text first. And you can't send your phantom friend photos of your cat at all hours of the night since the Invisible Boyfriend site doesn't allow you to exchange any photos.
Still, there's something there, I think -- something that's kinda cool, something that's really old-school. Something akin to how we used to send sticker-covered letters to pen-pals and make friends in AOL chatrooms when the Internet was still new and exciting.
"I do think there's an opportunity to expand this into the friendship realm," Homann said, adding that the company is just basically trying to figure out what they have at the moment -- why users have created 55,000 girlfriends and boyfriends in just a handful of months. "To [provide people with] someone to talk to. I don't think we're there yet."
When they get there, however, it could be genuinely satisfying. Take it from someone with a real-life invisible friend.