The 2013 movie “Her” tells the story of an introvert named Theodore who falls in love with his Siri-like virtual assistant, Samantha. Powered by advanced artificial intelligence technology, Samantha is able to cleverly and considerately respond to Theodore’s emotional needs in ways no one else in his life had ever done before.
“Her” is a work of science fiction, and Samantha is a fantasy. But since 2014, an entire industry of virtual boyfriends and girlfriends has emerged in China. Only, instead of coming from an exceptionally intelligent computer, the voice on the other end belongs to a real person — one with the emotionally taxing job of providing paying customers emotional support, care, and the feeling of being loved over the internet.
Known as “virtual lovers,” these individuals sell warmth and happiness to clients through platforms like e-commerce marketplace Taobao and internet forum Baidu Tieba, often via a virtual storefront run by an experienced retailer. Crucially, in this kind of care-for-money transaction, no one ever meets the other in person. Depending on the virtual lover’s comfort level, he or she communicates with customers via text, voice message, or video call.
The boom in virtual love comes at a time when many young Chinese feel alienated from society and frustrated by their inability to form ideal relationships. Many lovers and clients view the arrangement as a safe and inexpensive way to hone their communication skills and explore what love means to them. However, based on interviews with virtual lovers, store owners, and clients, it’s all too easy for clients and bosses to exploit their virtual lovers.
According to our research, the virtual lover industry is youth-dominated. Virtual lovers can be either male or female, but they are usually under 25. Clients are also generally in their 20s. More women work in the industry than men, but there are also about three female customers for every one male.
Most virtual lovers see their role as a part-time job, a way to earn a little extra money while they attend university or work white-collar jobs. In 2014, when the industry was just emerging, virtual lovers charged monthly rates as high as 450 yuan ($73) for an hour or more a day of messages or calls; by 2018, a month’s service from a top-rated virtual lover could cost as much as 1,999 yuan.
Many virtual lovers tailor their performances to client needs by offering role-playing services — agreeing to call clients while portraying anything from the prototypical innocent girl-next-door or fresh-faced young men known as “little fresh meat” to an abusive stepmother or tyrannical boss.
For example, a female client might ask her virtual lover to play the role of the caring “uncle-next-door”: greeting her in the morning, checking in at lunchtime to make sure she’s eaten, listening to her complaints about school throughout the day, and bidding her goodnight before she falls asleep.
One of the male customers we interviewed was a geeky introvert at a top university. He barely interacted with his roommates, but he told us he hired a virtual girlfriend because it let him experience something new: He almost never talked to girls. Indeed, a virtual lover can seem more authentic than a real lover, simply because a real lover will rarely, if ever, be as emotionally attentive as a hired one.
Becoming a virtual lover is not as easy as just knowing how to chat. In job postings on Taobao or Baidu Tieba, virtual lover services list the qualities they seek in potential employees, including sufficient spare time (college students and white-collared workers are ideal); good conversational skills (including a high emotional quotient, patience, the ability to find new conversation topics, and a familiarity with role-play); professionalism (employees should not quit halfway through their contract); and romantic experience.
Prospective employees indicate their interests and skills in discussion threads set up by shop owners specializing in the service. This includes their personality type, ethnicity, whether or not they are willing to work with same-sex clients, and the kinds of services they are willing to provide, such as voice messages or video calls.
Some shops require these prospective employees to undergo an interview process, though based on the first-hand experience of a fellow researcher, it does not appear to be too challenging. Others charge a small fee for training sessions.
“We must be customer-oriented,” one trainer told us. “To maintain a good experience, a lover cannot have too many clients simultaneously. When the client has nothing to say, we must find new topics. We must have a good attitude, a good grasp of the role we’re playing, and reply quickly enough.”
Customers value simulated closeness, according to the trainer. “When I first start chatting, I will address my client as qin’ai de or something more vulgar like baobei or bao’er (all three terms meaning “dear,” with different degrees of intimacy),” he said. “It sounds low-class, but the customers like it this way.”
If hired to play a specific role, a lover might switch things up, however. For example, a lover role-playing a tyrannical boss might announce his presence with a demanding “Hey! Open the door!” But when role-playing the warm-hearted uncle-next-door, he might instead lead with a kinder-sounding, “Girl, Uncle is here.”
All this virtual love and role-play can be emotionally exhausting. American sociologist Erving Goffman’s theory about self-presentation states that people want to positively influence how others perceive us. An individual performs their public identity on the “front stage” to their audience, while their real self remains “backstage.” But no matter how well a lover may try to play their role, their real self will leak into their “front stage” performance little by little.
Shops give employees lists of potential comments and responses. Some use them, but to truly please clients, others believe it’s best to be more personal. “Standardized answers aren’t as good as those ‘from the heart,’” one male virtual lover said, using the Chinese term zouxin to express the preferred type. “But zouxin tires lovers out very easily, so emotional weariness becomes our occupational hazard.”
Virtual lovers are also highly vulnerable to exploitation, in part because their labor is decentralized, casualized, and very cheap. Virtual-love shops regularly take a 50% cut of their employees’ earnings, though one shop owner we interviewed claimed to only take 30% in recognition of the hard work his employees performed.
Yet there seems to be little resistance among workers to these exploitative practices. When they feel frustrated or emotionally exhausted, virtual lovers most often just quit. “There’s a high turnover rate, because this job is tiring,” the above-mentioned lover said. “It’s like that power gauge in your computer game. After you use your power, it takes time to recover.”
To succeed in the industry, a virtual lover must constantly draw upon his or her stores of personal experience, knowledge, and memory to successively inhabit a wide variety of client-requested characters. In this sense, the industry is a microcosm of neoliberalism’s relentless drive to maximize human capital for material gain. Unless or until the underlying material conditions of this system change, the emotional demand for, and exploitation of virtual lovers will likely continue.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Iconica/VCG)