When a guy pays for a service that provides him with a fake online girlfriend, what is he really hiding?

Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)


One of the perversions of the Internet is its transformation of deceit and abuse into opt-in services that people can buy for themselves. After the urban legend turned true story of Manti T'eo's love affair, the entrepreneurial spirit has led to a foundling group of companies willing to sell love affairs with people who aren't there. The most recent entrant to the field is Fake Internet Girlfriend, a website that for $250 a month will arrange for a woman to leave Facebook posts on a person's wall, send up to 10 texts, and make 2 personal phone calls to a secretary or voicemail. For an extra $100, the woman will also become "involved" in a person's online gaming community in games like World of Warcraft, Everquest II, or Evony.

The service is a predictable way of allowing men to pay for the social capital to subvert what shortcomings (they fear) others might see in them. It is not the absence of romantic intimacy that so bothers the potential client, but rather the implacable fears about how its lack makes them seem to others. While Fake Internet Girlfriend suggests a conveniently digital solution to a mostly psychological fear, it is perhaps more telling to consider all of the things its prospective clients are unwilling to do to address their social anxieties. As if with prostitution, having a girlfriend service is less about companionship and more about allowing a man the fantasy of control over his companion, something ideally transmissible through the digital constraints of Facebook. 


The service is a predictable way of allowing men to pay for the social capital to subvert what shortcomings (they fear) others might see in them.


In an essay last month writer Jonathan Williams described a year-long relationship he had with a "fake online girlfriend." Williams relationship was not a pay-for service, but it had many of the same structural benefits, and its eventual unraveling reveal the essential commodity in online make believe. After suffering major professional setbacks that forced him to move back in with his parents at the age of 30, Williams spent a significant amount of time reading and posting on an Internet message board. One night a woman wrote him a direct message to compliment one of his forum posts and the two struck up an Internet flirtation that soon became an Internet relationship, with phone calls, introductions to family members, Skype chats while traveling, and periodic plans to meet in distant cities around holidays, the plans for which always fell apart at the last minute.

A year later Williams discovered he had been tricked by his beloved, the few pictures she'd sent during their flirtation were culled from the web. "This woman wasn't petite and well dressed with a big smile that showed a little too much gum," Williams wrote of seeing her real Facebook profile for the first time. "This woman was obese. She looked to be about 45."

If there is a fairytale where a once well-to-do 30 year-old man falls in love with a 45 year-old obese woman it has not yet been written. For Internet Man, being in a relationship is not a process of genuine emotional exchange with another human being but a kind of dues collection, wherein his partner performs an elaborate social validation of his status.  The more sought-after the partner's physical traits, the more effective the performance is presumed to be. What is bought for it is not love, closeness, or good company, but the digital molting that real relationships leave behind as they pass in and out of various Internet platforms.

Predictably, Fake Internet Girlfriend's "Why Rent an Online Girlfriend?" section justifies the service without mentioning any direct benefit to the client. The problems the technology seeks to address all seem to come from everyone but the client: Avoiding employer bias against single people, making an ex-girlfriend jealous, to stop family "hounding" by starting a relationship. It's sad to note all these benefits only aspire to bring the client back to normalcy. One has to pay for an unbiased boss, non-acrimonious breakups, and supportive families, and the surest way to maintain this normalcy is deceit. It is breathtaking to realize we have reached a point in the overlap between digital commerce and social networking where we can pay people to lie to us, sparing us from having to encounter the sad array of people who might consider having a genuine relationship without the digital deceit. Were we to confront that ungainly reality, we might have to consider it was not really a relationship we craved, but a distraction that fools us into thinking we're better than we actually are.